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October 16, 2018

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Merlin Olsen’s death felt at Chaparral, Eldorado

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Amanda Finnegan

Chaparral and Eldorado highs annually play in “The Cleat Game,” a high school football rivalry that dates back to the 1970s. The Cleat is a bronzed cleat of Los Angeles Rams legend Merlin Olsen, who died Thursday.

Merlin Olsen was best known for his Hall of Fame football career as a defensive tackle with the Los Angeles Rams.

The Rams' defensive front was nicknamed the "Fearsome Foursome" for its ability to intimidate opponents, and Olsen brought fear to the opposition with the best of them.

After football, Olsen went on to gain fame broadcaster and actor, performing in "Little House on the Prairie" and and starring in "Father Murphy."

For us who grew up in East Las Vegas, however, Olsen was more than the character we saw on television or the football legend we heard stories about. He was the man who helped develop our high school football rivalry into one of the state's most prestigious.

Olsen died today in California from mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer often related to exposure to asbestos. He was 69.

You will surely hear about how Olsen was a great football player, broadcaster and person. What you won't hear about are his contributions to the "Cleat Game" between Chaparral and Eldorado highs.

Olsen in the 1970s donated one of his cleats for the game, which is bronzed and sits on a 2-foot base. It annually is awarded to the team that wins the rivalry game, with Chaparral holding a 23-14 series edge.

Of late, with both schools struggling, the game has been a Super Bowl of sorts for the athletes. Eldorado won last year to snap a two-year losing streak.

"As soon as the game ended, their players raced over and took (the cleat) from us," Chaparral coach Donnie Davis said. "That was hard to watch. The kids are already hungry and looking forward to facing them again this year. We are going to scratch and claw to get the cleat back."

I'm a proud Chaparral graduate, and while I wasn't on the football team, I know how important winning that trophy was to the players. We started learning about the rivalry in middle school and took great pride in being part of it — even if it was as a fan.

So, for all those Chap and El-Dog grads and other proud East Las Vegans, may you rest in peace, Mr. Olsen. And thanks.

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