Football 101: No. 39, Merlin Olsen
Today begins our special, two-week, daily run of essays for the Football 101—my personal countdown of the greatest players in pro football history. You can see the full rundown of the new plan for the Football 101 here. And a reminder that this series is for subscribers. So here’s your chance to join the fun!
I feel like I have known about Merlin Olsen all my life … but that is not from his playing days. I have no memory at all of Olsen as a player. I remember him specifically and joyfully because he was the big announcer on NBC when I came of age.
People around my age can tell you anything and everything about football on television when Merlin Olsen was at the top of the mountain. There were only three networks showing NFL games then — and ABC only had the Monday Night Football game. Monday Night Football was its own thing.
In those days, as every red-blooded American knew, NBC showed the AFC games and CBS showed the NFC games. NBC games were somehow more colorful; really the colors of the games on NBC were brighter. CBS games were somehow more sober and serious. The Raiders were on NBC. The Cowboys were on CBS. Brent Musberger and Jimmy the Greek and Phyllis George were on CBS. Bryant Gumbel and Bob Costas and Paul Maguire were on NBC.
I’ve written about this before — this doesn’t exactly connect to Merlin Olsen, though he was a big part of it — everything about those Football Sundays felt titanic to a school-aged version of me. I needed them to last forever; the rest of the week was school and homework and bullying and responsibility and so many other feelings I couldn’t cope with. Football was the only light I could see.
And so I took any indication of the day ending as a full-on tragedy. I can remember — and I have talked to others who felt the same way — the horror that would take over when I would see the credits begin to roll before the NFL game ended. The announcer would say, “The executive producer of the NFL on CBS is …” and my heart would start pounding like an Edgar Allen Poe story. And then the game would end, and that horrifying stopwatch on “60 Minutes” would mirror my heart, and even now I can still feel the sweat …
OK, back to Merlin Olsen.
Part of the magic of football then — and there’s still some of this now, but not as much — was that the announcers told you everything about the import of the game. I was a Cleveland Browns fan, so my network was NBC.
At NBC, if you had Charlie Jones and Lenny Dawson calling the game, it was KIND of important.
If you had Marv Albert and Bob Griese it was KIND OF important.
If you had Don Criqui and Bob Trumpy calling your game, it was PRETTY IMPORTANT.
But if you had Dick Enberg and Merlin Olsen, you knew: THIS was a game that mattered. I don’t recall necessarily enjoying Enberg-Olsen announcing any more than, say, Criqui-Trumpy (or Criqui-John Brodie or Jay Randolph-Gene Washington) — I was just a kid and not one to judge the broadcasters — but their presence, their voices lent gravitas to the games. It seemed to me like they almost never did Cleveland Browns games … but when it came time for the AFC Championship Game, there they were, Enberg and Olsen, the last stop, the gatekeepers to the Super Bowl.
What I think most about Olsen’s announcing is that, in my memory (which is pretty stout when it comes to my childhood football), he never once gave away that he was one of the best players in NFL history. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that he was football’s Gentle Giant and the very heart of the Los Angeles Rams’ famous Fearsome Foursome defensive line.
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