Mesothelioma Takes Life of Merlin Olsen

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Merlin Olsen was one of the strongest players in NFL history, but malignant mesothelioma proved to be one rival he could not defeat.

NFL Rookie of the Year in 1962. NFL player of the year in 1964. A Football Hall of Famer, television actor and commentator, Olsen died of mesothelioma on March 11, a disease he and his family claimed he contracted from exposure to asbestos. A football standout early on at Utah State, Olsen went on to a successful 15 year career with the Los Angeles Rams and was elected to the Pro Bowl in 14 of those seasons, starting with his rookie year in 1962. He remains the Rams’ all-time leader in career tackles.

At 6’ 5”and 275 pounds, the soft spoken Olsen was often called the “gentle giant.” He had said, “At an early age I was big and strong, but I always had to be careful that I didn’t lose my temper…I was also awkward enough and slow enough and rebellious enough that I got teased a great deal…So when I finally grew coordinated enough to catch up with the guys who hit and ran, I only wanted to be able to say to them, never again. I didn’t have to beat up on them. I didn’t have to prove to them how strong I was. “

After retiring from football, Olsen continued to be active as a sports commentator and reinvented himself again as a television actor. His most memorable roles were that of mountain man Jonathan Garvey on ‘Little House on the Prairie’ and NBC’s ‘Father Murphy’ in which he played a travelling priest.

But Olsen and his family believe that his acting career may have played a role in the illness that eventually killed him. In 2009, Olsen was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a deadly type of cancer that affects the lining around the lungs and is caused by inhalation of asbestos fibers. In December of 2009, the Olsens filed suit against a long list of businesses, including NBC Studios, NBC Universal, 20th Century Fox and even Sherwin Williams alleging the companies negligently exposed him to asbestos.

That same month, Olsen was honored by Utah State at a half-time ceremony praising his contributions to the University, but he was too sick to attend. The school announced that the football field at Romney Stadium would be renamed “Merlin Olsen Field” and is also planning a statue of Olsen at the corner of the stadium.

In his mesothelioma lawsuit, Olsen also claimed he was exposed to asbestos early in life doing manual labor after school as a child, and then again as an adult doing drywall work. Construction jobs carry a high risk of asbestos exposure because of the number of asbestos-containing products on job sites, including some insulation, roof and floor tiles. Mesothelioma can take 20 to 40 years after asbestos exposure to develop, and most cases are the result of the inhalation of the tiny fibers.

Olsen underwent three rounds of chemotherapy for his illness, but, like many patients diagnosed with mesothelioma, he died within a year of diagnosis. He was married with three children and four grandchildren. He was 69 years old.


Lawrence Journal-World – Google News Archive – Jan 6, 1982
Merlin Olsen Suit: Asbestos Caused My Cancer. December 31, 2009.
Alden, Douglas. “Football State and TV actor Merlin Olsen dies at 69”, March 11 2010, The Associated Press.

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