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Merlin Olsen Succumbs to Mesothelioma


Merlin Olsen was one of the Los Angeles Rams’ Fearsome Foursome, but the 69-year-old Hall of Fame left tackle, TV commentator, and TV actor could not defeat mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer. He died on Thursday, March 11, in California.

Olsen’s life was a colorful one, beginning in his birthplace of Logan, Utah, to Utah State University, where he was the school’s best interior lineman and won the Outland Trophy to prove it. He joined the Los Angeles Rams in 1962 and wore their uniform for 15 years before retiring. While he played for the Rams, he received his master’s degree in economics.

In 1977, shortly after retiring from football, Olsen took his 6 foot 5 inch frame to the airwaves as a commentator for NBC’s pro football and Rose Bowl programs. He also tackled other roles, including starring in his own series, “Father Murphy,” playing the character Jonathan Garvey in NBC’s “Little House on the Prairie,” and serving as a spokesperson for FTD florists in commercials.

The one role that was more than he could handle was mesothelioma. This is a rare form of cancer in which cancerous cells develop in the mesothelium, the protective sac that covers most of the body’s internal organs. According to the National Cancer Institute, only about 2,000 new cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed in the United States each year. Although it appears more often in men and the risk increases with age, this cancer can develop in either sex at any age.

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Mesothelium has different names, depending on where it is in the body. Most cases of mesothelioma begin in the pleura (membranes that surround the lungs and line the chest cavity wall) or the peritoneum (membranes in the abdominal cavity).

The major risk factor for mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos. Between 70 to 80 percent of people who have mesothelioma have been exposed to this industrial material that has been used in everything from root shingles to textiles, insulation, brake linings, and cement. In the remaining patients, the cause is usually unknown.

The risk of developing asbestos-related lung disease increases with greater exposure to the material, but some people develop the cancer even if they had only brief exposure to asbestos. However, not everyone who has been heavily exposed to asbestos develops related diseases.

Merlin Olsen visited Utah State University in December 2009, and during a halftime ceremony of a basketball game the school announced that it was dedicating the football field at its Romney Stadium as Merlin Olsen Field in 2010. Olsen was ailing at the time, so much so that he missed a St. Louis Rams home game that same month that honored him.

Merlin Olsen was taken down by mesothelioma, but he leaves behind a long line of memories and awards, including entry into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1980, the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1982, the NFL’s most valuable player in 1974 as chosen by the Maxwell Club of Philadelphia, and being voted to the Pro Bowl 14 out of his 15 years with the Rams.

National Cancer Institute
New York Times, March 11, 2010