Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Merlin Olsen: A Local Legend


I never saw Merlin Olsen play. Heck, I've never even seen him in any of his acting roles. He never played for any of the teams I cheer for. But he still means a lot to me. There is a connection there for me, both geographically and culturally.

The first connection is the obvious: Merlin Olsen was the first (and so far, only) Utahn elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In fact, he was the first Utahn in any professional sports Hall of Fame. There are very few of them, still. I know that longtime Cardinals safety Larry Wilson attended the University of Utah was inducted into the Hall of Fame before Olsen, but Wilson was born and raised and graduated from high school in Idaho. Olsen, on the other hand, was born and raised in Logan, Utah, where he also attended college at Utah State. In a state that has had relatively few athletes make it to the highest level of their sports, Merlin Olsen is arguably the face of sports in Utah. That civic pride creates a major connection, but the local connection runs just a little bit deeper than that for me.


My cousin, Jeff, at Logan High in 2007. Photo from 247 Sports.

My mom attended Utah State. Like Merlin Olsen, she is an Aggie through and through. And though I don't root for Utah State, I'm usually happy when they find success. Some of my family still lives in Logan. My youngest cousin, Jeff, played at Logan High, the same school Merlin Olsen attended. Jeff was a high-profile quarterback recruit who attended the Elite 11 camps with the likes of Derek Carr, AJ McCarron, Geno Smith, and Matt Barkley. Unfortunately, his college career never panned out, but he did play some games on Merlin Olsen Field for the same Utah State Aggies. 

And there's something more. It's a feeling of cultural connection, as well. As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Olsen and I share core religious beliefs and values. For members of the Church (commonly called "Mormons" though we try to avoid this term), this unites us to a larger family throughout the world. Typically, members of the Church take pride in the accomplishments of those who share our faith. This is the secret behind the large contingency of BYU fans at away games and bowl games. I always hear the announcers on TV comment that BYU fans travel well, but the fact is that there is a group of BYU fans wherever the team goes. Only 31% of BYU students hail from Utah; the rest come from every other state and many other countries. 

Not all members of the Church are BYU fans, and not all BYU fans celebrate the success of athletes from rival schools like Utah State, but what I am trying to point out is that members of the LDS community are spread far and wide and many of them take an interest in the achievement of those who share similar beliefs. Why this is, I'm not sure, but one author attempted to explain the phenomenon in terms of the message that successful peers in the Church send. On one hand, it sends the outward message that Mormons aren't the weird, compound-dwelling recluses that they seem to be portrayed as. On the other hand, it sends the inward message that one can be a faithful Church member and successful in secular pursuits; it needn't be a choice between one or the other. To people who are accustomed to having their beliefs marginalized, misrepresented, and even mocked, both of these messages have value. As does the solidarity between folks who share the same background and principles.

I'm really no different. Of all my card collections, my favorite is my BYU collection. But that BYU binder isn't restricted to BYU players. There are guys like Haloti Ngata, Todd Heap, Bruce Hurst, and Jeff Kent, to name a few, who never played for BYU, but share my religious and cultural background. I don't know if Merlin Olsen was a faithful member of the religion we share. I don't know if he was an active church-goer in his adult life. I do know that he was raised as one, and he shared in interviews that he could always fall back on the values he learned in his youth. And that is the true connection, isn't it? A shared value system. A culture. And Merlin Olsen was, for many years, one of the prominent faces of that culture.

This post was brought to you by Ryan (SumoMenkoMan) at He sent out the Merlin Olsen card shown at the top along with this Jack Youngblood. He wants these cards to travel from blog to blog in a "living Blog Bat-Around." They already have their next destination, but if you want to participate, let Ryan know. I didn't have anything to say about Jack Youngblood, so I'm excited to hear what everybody else has.


  1. Awesome post. Can't wait to see where Olsen and Youngblood land next.

  2. Nice write up. Cool connection for sure and never knew Olsen was from Utah, or didn’t soak that in on the back of his card.

  3. As far as local legends go, you could certainly do much worse!

  4. I definitely get the religious connection concept. I think it's somewhat similar to the local connection concept, where you collect guys from where you grew up. The whole shared values/experience thing. One guy I probably started collecting in part because of his faith example was Dave Dravecky. I don't really collect football, but would probably have collections of Philip Rivers and Justin Tucker if I did - both faithful Catholics. Good stuff!