It was a different time in a different era when the measure of a man wasn’t summed up in 140 characters. What a quartet of football giants – legends in Rams and NFL lore – shared went well beyond the day to day minutiae of life.
In reality, the story of the Fearsome Foursome isn’t one about head slaps, Little House on the Prairie or close relationships with the Kennedys. Those are part of the fabric of the story, certainly but what you will see in “Fearsome Foursome: A Football Life” debuting Wednesday at 7 p.m. central on NFL Network is that that all of those things were a function of something greater than the sum of four outstanding individual parts.
For Jennifer Allen, the daughter of legendary coach George Allen, the sub-tag of “A Football Life” is precisely appropriate in that the Fearsome Foursome of Deacon Jones, Merlin Olsen, Lamar Lundy and Rosey Grier had a profound impact on the life of her and her family. Her second son is named after Jones, her first son after quarterback Roman Gabriel and her third son’s middle name is Lamar.
It’s fitting, then, that she was approached by NFL Films to serve as the narrator for the hour-long project. On Tuesday afternoon, I had the privilege of speaking with her and discussing the piece.
Below is the interview in its entirety. It’s lengthy but poignant and I hope provides any Rams fan, football fan or even someone who enjoys human interest pieces with a deeper perspective and understanding of what they will watch Wednesday night.
Q: This had to be quite a personal project for you, something you hold very close to your heart, right?
Jennifer Allen: Yeah, it really was. It covers the arc of our lives and their lives and anytime you get a chance to do something with NFL Films, they are so thorough. They are so willing to look at the whole picture and that was completely inspiring to be able to work alongside (producer) Chris Barlow, who actually worked on a feature with me when my book had come out. Steve Sabol had interviewed me about my book about my dad and growing up in the NFL so it was really nice to work alongside Chris on this.
Q: How did you get involved with this project?
JA: I worked for NFL Network for six years as a features reporter there. So I was comfortable with the camera and comfortable talking with players and coaches. I was really at home. NFL films actually contacted me last winter and said ‘Would you be interested in doing the interviews and sitting down with these men?’ I said ‘of course.’ I see Deacon quite a bit and Rosey Grier because they are both here in Los Angeles. Deacon is super close to us. But I had never met Susan Olsen or Phil Olsen and I had never met Lamar’s son. Really, he’s a little bit older than me but we still had similar childhoods growing up in the Coliseum. So when Films approached me on it, there was just no doubt in my mind that I would want to be a part of it.
Q: Was it hard at times? It would seem to be a pretty emotional project to work on at some points?
JA: It was hard talking with Lamar’s son. It was emotional for sure but I was also so interested in getting to know them and getting to speak with them that you really can’t let your emotions sort of drag you around and I was very sensitive to how hard it might have been to Susan Olsen because Merlin had passed away fairly recently. I just didn’t want to just press in on her. When you are interviewing someone who has lost somebody recently, it’s your job to maintain a steadiness. When Phil was reading Merlin’s mission statement, oh wow. We are all in it at that moment. I think it just helped so much just because even though I may not have known Susan, I’m sure they felt a bit of my father in me there. So there’s this deep connection. Really, the whole piece to me is all about love. I know that sounds a little sappy but how much love is there in this? The harder part was watching it with the music. I was like ‘Chris, I have watched it a few times and I know the ending is coming and I know how it’s going to end but wow.’ I think people who grew up in the NFL…just the friendships and the family when you spent years together in football is really rare. I think this story really speaks to that. That’s the beauty of it but there’s also a huge feeling in this piece of the passing of time.
Q: Yeah, the passing of time is evident. It starts with you as a little girl then you’re suddenly sitting there doing these interviews with these football giants. I guess it had to be a little like going back in time.
JA: Yeah, definitely. When I was a little girl and I was young, I wasn’t aware of the intricacies of what was going on in the game. When we were at the Redskins, that’s where I really clued in. But there were a few times at the Rams games where my mom would have to yank me down and go ‘We are not clapping right now.’ Even in Chicago, I wouldn’t go to games; they told me I was too young and not ready for it yet. So some of it was I wanted to know about when Rosey made the decision to not come back. Some of it was a step back in time in the sense that I’d listen to a Dick Enberg replay and his voice is a part of my childhood and I see how much they dominated and how big they were and how fast they were. I remember having chills, being in awe of that. Then feeling as an adult, still in awe. So the emotion of it was definitely a step back in time.
Q: You mention being curious about Rosey’s decision not to return, were there a lot of things that maybe you learned doing this that you didn’t know previously?
JA: I knew that Rosey had a relationship with Bobby Kennedy. I didn’t realize to what extent. We shot I don’t know how many hours of tape and then it gets distilled to a 42-minute version but his relationship with the Kennedys was very intimate and continued after Bobby Kennedy was killed. I thought it was interesting that Deacon didn’t know that Merlin was footing Lamar’s medical bills. I loved seeing Rosey trying to coax Deacon into softness and letting go of all that hate. Seeing that dynamic was really special as they are getting older. I didn’t realize the magnitude of Merlin Olsen’s legacy in Utah. Seeing his children was another difficult part. His children didn’t remember his playing days but how heavily his death weighed on their hearts and knowing when you lose a parent and it has the added weight of a public figure that you shared with the public so there were some definite moments. I knew Lamar but not really well. I think he was definitely the most soft spoken. After he retired, he had so many ailments he had to go back home to Indiana. So I didn’t know him personally as well. I hadn’t spent as much time with him but sitting with his son, which you didn’t get in this piece, he was hilarious. I told him ‘Your mom is so pretty.’ He goes ‘Don’t tell her that, she’s out of control.’ She’s 80 years old and she’s so pretty but he goes ‘She’s out of control.’ But he was really funny. The things I had heard about Lamar I could feel in him, they had passed straight down to him.
Fearsome Foursome: A Football Life narrator Jennifer Allen with Deacon Jones. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Allen)
Q: It seems very appropriate that it’s called “A Football Life” because it really doesn’t seem to be about just football but the way these four men transcended just playing football. It seems maybe people don’t realize the scope of that.
JA: It was such a different time too and you see all the things that they did from the USO tour with Bob Hope to all of the commercials, the dance routine, the singing. It’s a rare bunch but it’s a credit to NFL Films that somebody can watch this piece who has no interest in football and be interested because it’s talking about human beings and lives. And growing up watching NFL Films, it was thanks to them that I got to witness who my dad was on the field because I was never near the field so I didn’t know what he was like on the field or in the locker room. I think this piece allows you to see the intensity on the field but also the person off the field, that it wasn’t just these three years they spent together but how they remained and flourished as friends and human beings after football which often doesn’t happen. Often, they get off the field and it’s who am I?
Q: The piece gets into the racial divide that the group had to deal with at the time, but it seems like even for you, there were a lot of lessons about acceptance just from being around that situation. Is that fair to say?
JA: My dad grew up in the Depression in Detroit and his childhood hero was Joe Louis. So that’s the framework I grew up in. My dad held Joe Louis up as a hero. Even to say that my dad was color blind is so out of context with who he was and how we were raised. I do have tremendous gratitude for growing up with these men and with football players who came from all walks of life. Later, you go ‘Oh, you’re from Louisiana’ and you don’t know who these people are but you are all united on this team. My dad would have these team parties where all these families came. One of his expressions was ‘Stick together and love one another.’ So I got to know people that in my daily life in Virginia or wherever that I wouldn’t have probably been as privy too. The three men grew up in segregation and Merlin came from Utah. And Deacon had told me because I had interviewed him at NFL Network that not just Lamar but Merlin told him to walk through the white world. Merlin was great for that. I think that at that time in America, they had to play during the Watts riots, which I don’t think it made it into the piece. The three days after there was still a curfew but the league decided they were still going to have the game. Deacon tells the story of Merlin walking the tunnel right next to them and they could hear gunshots outside the stadium. They walked through that time together and I’m sure set an example beyond what was well beyond their work on the field together.
Q: One thing you mentioned was the part where Deacon talks about how much hate he has in his heart. I’ve met Deacon and he seems like such a jokester that it can be hard to discern when he’s joking and when he’s not. To what extent is he serious when he talks about that hate?
JA: I think at the time he meant it. I think the quarterback became the symbol of white authority as it was. But I think Deacon is so funny and what would we do if he suddenly said ‘No, I like this quarterback.’ We would be going ‘No you don’t, cut it out! I want to see you put him in a bag with a baseball bat.’ It would be like we have got to get him to doctor. When our son Roman was born, we got all of these great messages and Deacon leaves a message ‘I can’t believe you named your son after a quarterback. It’s always quarterbacks. Didn’t you understand anything about your old man?’ I saved the tape to give to Roman Gabriel at some point because he left a great message about how we couldn’t have picked a better name. But yeah, it was pretty funny.
Q: The show delves into the relationship between Deacon and your dad. It doesn’t appear from the outside that a coach and player could get much closer than those two.
JA: They were very close. Deacon once told me he overheard my dad berating my brothers about something. My dad would always hold him up as a role model. He’d say ‘you don’t see Deacon Jones shirking his responsibilities.’ I think he overheard it at training camp and he said he had never been held up by a white man as a role model and that my dad didn’t try to control him. He let him be himself and entrusted him with the team in that way. That bonded Deacon to my dad. And then my dad for Deacon, my dad was a pretty contained guy and he was pretty uptight. Just the sheer abandon that Deacon would play with was just so inspiring and my dad respected that so much. When my dad died it was a sudden thing and it was like the floor had been ripped out from under you. We had the funeral five days after he passed and we pulled up at the cemetery and there was a hearse. I was living in New York at the time and my brothers had planned everything so I didn’t know what was going to happen. And there was Deacon outside the hearse with the door open and putting on the white gloves. When I saw him I immediately felt like everything was going to be OK. It was like ‘Deacon’s here? Everything is going to be OK.’ I know it sounds funny but I never realized the sense of protection I felt from him. He and Bill Kilmer were the pallbearers. I love Bill Kilmer, too. But Deacon was putting on the gloves going ‘All right.’ His strength gave me strength.
Q: It’s evident in the piece that Deacon is still around your family. Do your sons comprehend who Deacon is?
JA: We see Deacon a couple of times a year. For a while he’d be like “Yeah whatever Roman,’ joking around. But little Deacon, our second son, has this great relationship with him. But this is still going to be such a great gift to them as they get a little bit older to see that this was what a part of my life was about and part of their lives too. They never knew my dad and they may go to my mom’s house and see the pictures but until you see somebody in action, it’s almost like a still picture, it’s lifeless. They get a sense of it. I’m so toxic on Sundays, I get really stressed and nobody can sit in my spot on the couch. My little one, Anton, he’s got the burning desire to win everything possible. He’s got this crazy genetic code where I have to bring him down a notch. He saw the opening of the piece and he goes “they didn’t show my home run.’ It was just classic.
Q: One of the things it seems like nowadays you just don’t find is relationships like what they had, whether it’s a function of social media and all the things that pull away from that but it seems what they have and had was rare.
JA: I do think it was rare. There are some rare relationships; I mean Tom Brady and Bill Belichick that’s an epic relationship. But I do think with free agency and how often guys change teams, I think that really has changed that. Also the fact that these guys’ names weren’t on the back of their jerseys. It wasn’t about them. Even though they eventually became them and you think of them you can see their names on the back of their jerseys but really the blue and white Rams had no names. So that’s a whole different mindset. The word superstar for an individual I before team wasn’t going on. I think there was also, like Dick Enberg said, a chemistry between them that was rare that kept them so close. I think they all complemented each other well, like with Deacon and Merlin it was yin and yang. So I think there were many reasons why but it definitely speaks of another era and that’s kind of the melancholy at the end. The interviews at the beginning, they are so young and so big and so healthy and Steve Sabol did those interviews.
Q: The end is a poignant finish speaking to what the legacy of these four greats was but what would you want it to be? How would you like people to view this piece and what would you want them to take from it?
JA: I think it’s about the full person. It’s not just about being this great player on the field. It’s also about being a great man off the field and a great friend and using the gifts that you had on the field to help others when you step off the field. My dad always said he was looking for players that were good citizens. But these guys were all good citizens. They were just good men. Their careers weren’t the full realization of themselves. I think that happens more now and that’s why guys come off the field and ask ‘Who am I?’ You start training them when they are 5. But I think it was an aspect of that time, too. These were part time jobs. They had jobs in the offseason. I think overall, the theme is the bond that formed on the field and how it continued to grow and flourish off the field and how they spread their gifts beyond just being on the field and into a broader world beyond them.
"Fearsome Foursome: A Football Life" airs Wednesday, October 10 on NFL Network at 7 p.m. central time.