Olsen was a man of character

Editor's Note: This column originally appeared online at National Football Post.

I fell in love with the NFL in the late '50s and '60s because my father took my brothers and I to Rams game at the Los Angeles Coliseum. They were nosebleed seats, which necessitated telescope-strength field glasses to follow the action, but we loved the Rams. The Fearsome Foursome defensive line eviscerated opposing quarterbacks, wreaking havoc on offenses throughout the League.

Deacon Jones, Lamar Lundy and Roosevelt Grier were devastating and colorful, but my favorite was the "gentle giant" Merlin Olsen. He played 15 years for the Rams, was selected to 14 Pro Bowls and later inducted into the Hall of Fame. In 2009, he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, "asbestos cancer," and died not long after at age 69.

Asbestos is a compound that is used in heavy equipment and mixed into drywalls. Harvard Medical professors and the Assistant Surgeon General of the United States have testified that exposure for even a few minutes to this substance greatly increases the risk of cancer. Fifty countries around the world have banned this substance, unfortunately the United States has given in to industry pressure and refused to outlaw this cancer-producing substance.

Many of the homes constructed in the 1960s and '70s in this country have concentrations of asbestos in their drywalls. Readers need to be especially careful when remodeling or reconstruction occurs in their homes so as not to be exposed. The family of Olsen filed a wrongful death suit against major corporations such as Georgia Pacific and Caterpillar, alleging that their use of asbestos in machinery and building caused his cancer. Their stated desire was not to seek personal enrichment but to use any award for advancing public awareness of the dangers and risks of asbestos.

Olsen grew up in Utah and economic circumstances forced him to work on construction projects as a youth. He continued this through college. His early sports career was less than auspicious. One of his coaches counseled him to "work hard on the books because you certainly have no future in sports." He dressed in overalls and was very clumsy and was teased by his peers, but that changed.

His fierce determination and work ethic allowed him to overcome his early athletic challenges and become a major star. He attended Utah State at a time it was not a major football force, but he changed that, too. As a senior, he led his team to a bowl appearance and a top-10 national ranking, and he was awarded the Outland Trophy as the top lineman in the country.

Some might not remember that in 1962, the NFL and AFL were in a battle for top college talent and Olsen became a subject of a bidding war between the Rams and the Denver Broncos of the AFL. He was a top-four pick in the first round of both drafts.

He chose the Rams for the security and prestige of the older league. He played out his career with one team in the nation's second largest market. He was often the first player quoted because of his extraordinary wit and intelligence. A devout Mormon, he exemplified great values and character.

It is rare to see the contrast between frightening size and domination and a generous and charitable heart. Watching him, I saw how athletes could deliver powerful messages and serve as role models.

Olsen had an incredible second career. With distinctive characteristics and a mellifluous voice, he was sought by Hollywood and played "Jonathan," Michael Landon's best friend in the top rated show "Little House on the Prairie." He had his own show and starred as "Father Murphy". He moved from acting to NFL commentating. His great football intelligence made him a natural for pairing with Dick Enberg on NBC and later Dick Stockton on CBS. He also became the spokesman for many companies. He gave speeches for corporations throughout the country and joined their boards.

He campaigned tirelessly for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton. It was there that I had the pleasure of a lunch with him at the yearly player event. I had the great honor of being asked by Warren Moon to present him at the Hall of Fame induction. Presenters do what the inductees do that week and we went to a luncheon with every living Hall of Fame member.

I happened to sit next to Olsen and we quickly got to talking. He told me he had taken time off to focus on family in Utah for several years but was anxious to get back to acting, commentating, public speaking and endorsements because "his sabbatical was done and he was restless."

I told him he was one of the few former athletes who had transcended the genre of sports to become an American icon and household name. The eclectic combination of his life activities gave him positive name recognition that could lead to an amazing future economically and as a continued role model.

He said he admired work I had done for Hall of Famers such as Howie Long, Steve Young, Troy Aikman, Moon and Bruce Smith, and I outlined what he could expect with the amazing growth in television and marketing. He was excited and told me he would love to work together.

He never got that chance.

When the Olsen family came and asked me to be an expert witness in their case, I agreed because of my lifetime respect for his role modeling and the continuing danger from asbestos. I was deposed in August for 17 hours by a flotilla of attorneys. I don't recommend it for the faint of heart. It is a Chinese water torture experience.

If a judge came to me and offered me the choice of 17 hours of being deposed or 17 months in the county jail, I would ask him for time to consider the question. The case settled this week, which will help raise awareness to the risks from asbestos. It also means that I am spared more hours of grilling at trial.

Olsen died at 69 unnecessarily. He should have had many more years of contribution to this world. It is a world that needs more Merlin Olsens. In his last selfless act, he took a stand to protect the public from a serious health risk.

LEIGH STEINBERG is a renowned sports agent, author, advocate, speaker and humanitarian. His column appears weekly. Follow Leigh on Twitter @steinbergsports or blog.steinbergsports.com.

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