This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Editor's note: Former BYU and NFL star Todd Christensen died Wednesday. This article was published in The Salt Lake Tribune June 12, 2001, under the headline: "Christensen Just Thankful For the Ride."
Provo • There are perceptions about Todd Christensen, some evident, others misleading.
The former tight end who made five Pro Bowls playing for the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders was once written up and in some simple minds off, as a "man for all seasons," he says of himself now that he is not all that multidimensional.
He is a lover of sports, a jock, who also happens to call on 10-dollar words as well as quotes from Abraham Maslow and Henry James and Gordon B. Hinckley to converse and make his points.
It's left to others to keep up and understand, or be left behind.
Christensen, a 45-year-old husband and father who quietly resides with his family in Alpine in northern Utah County, hates being defined or even described in those terms, hates being boxed into a confining space with walls of linguistic pretension and polysyllabic pomposity. He is concurrently cursed and blessed with a vast vernacular, with a storage bin of what others, as he puts it, "have said better than I ever could have" in his brain and on his tongue. He does not want to sound or seem arrogant. On the other hand, he does not want to succumb to dumbing down or suppressing what he knows.
So, inside of a two-plus-hour interview at a Mexican restaurant in Provo, an appointment he keeps accompanied by a customary yellow note pad, a journal, scriptures and his latest read at this particular juncture, Dan Rather's "Deadlines and Datelines" under arm, Christensen runs through his own chronology, using the vocabulary he has taught himself and the quotations he has memorized from others. All of which is not only fun to hear, but intriguing, too.
Especially coming from How you say? a two-time Super Bowl champion who made his name and fortune catching balls for a team full of renegades and knocking defenders on their keesters.
Beginning with his early years, growing up the son of a professor of audiology and speech pathology (Ned) at the University of Oregon and a nurturing and athletic mother (June), Christensen was smitten by sports. He and his brothers played every sport, "although I was the one with the genetic endowment," Christensen says.
"The gods of DNA were kind to me."
They eventually grew him to be 6-3 and 240 pounds.
And they made him fast, too.
School was important in the Christensen home oldest brother Merrill graduated Summa Cum Laude at MIT, and younger brother Kelly flourished in law school, subsequently passing the bar in several states but Todd stumbled his way through his classes.
"I consider myself our family's academic black sheep," he says. "My passion was elsewhere."
It was in football.
"Todd always had the drive," says Ned. "When he was 12, and even earlier, he ran sprints, lifted weights and did step exercises. He worked at it. And he had a great interest in every sport."
Still, he was taught by his parents to learn just as hard, and express himself well, which he did, almost to a fault. Years after he retired from pro football, while working for NBC as a color commentator with Jim Lampley during an NFL game, Christensen drove home a point by quoting a little ditty the one that ends with "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds" from Emerson.
"Emerson Fittipaldi?" Lampley joked.
"Emerson Boozer," laughed Christensen.
The network executives, enamored with John Madden's grilled-bratwurst-and-boom-bam-ughhh-blue-collar style didn't think Christensen's foray into parroting Ralph Waldo's poetry was so funny. He was summarily chastised.
Christensen couldn't see why.
Even if he could, it wouldn't matter.
He can't help himself, even if he actually did favor the words of Homer Simpson over Homer.
"Todd doesn't want to be seen as arrogant, although some people think he is," Ned says. "He just uses [big] words. When he was a little boy, he used to make up words. I found myself asking him, 'What does that mean?' "
Christensen says he isn't showing off or trying to make anyone feel stupid or propping himself up as a brainiac. He's just opening the storage bins.
"As Dick Cavett said, 'I'm intelligent, but not an intellectual,' " he says. "I don't sit and ask myself profound questions. My words, it's not like I'm trying too hard. It's just the way I was brought up. My father used to say, 'Too many people's education ends with their diploma.' I've continued to improve myself intellectually and spiritually. That's all I've tried to do. Perhaps it stands out because I'm a football player. But being a smart football player is like being a great surfer in Alaska."
• 'Pivotal' Moment
Christensen's love of verbal expression unfolded when Ned, who was also his son's LDS ecclesiastical leader as bishop, asked him to teach an adult gospel-doctrine class when he was just 16.
"After that, I was never afraid to be in front of an audience," he says. "That was pivotal in my life."
Most pivotal, though, was Christensen's dream of developing as a football player. He wanted to be a running back in the NFL. And his means of and methods for getting there were rooted in the then-still-revolutionary benefits of the weight room.
During his time at Sheldon High School in Eugene, Ore., Christensen grew from a 5-9, 150-pound tailback to an even quicker 6-2, 205-pound fullback. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards his senior season, but he was not a coveted star.
"I thought I was great," he says, "but I wasn't. I had my dream, my vision quest. C.S. Lewis refers to 'the thing that is you.' I knew what I wanted. I believed it."
The weights sculpted Christensen, making him physically strong "I was narcissistic," he says but his obsession with becoming a pro football player weakened his relationships with others.
"My increased sense of self-worth was masking my insecurities," he says. "I was unafraid of being alone. I was difficult for people to be around. But you don't get where you're going by being passive."
On his way to becoming the next Jim Brown, Christensen was fortunate enough to get the last scholarship BYU was offering in '74, after his senior prep season. "LaVell [Edwards] told me he had looked at film of me, and he wasn't impressed," Christensen says.
He became an effective pass-catching fullback at BYU nonetheless.
After his senior year, Christensen so impressed NFL scouts during workouts that he projected himself as a first-round draft pick. Instead, the Dallas Cowboys took him in the second round, which, as it turned out, was the highlight of his time with the club. After his rookie season was wasted by a broken foot, he was unceremoniously dumped.
The New York Giants picked him up and, a week later, cut him. Four other teams told him he wasn't good enough to play pro football.
Christensen caught on with the last outpost of desperados, the Raiders, where his speed and size were deemed worthy of special-teams play. Having already learned the hard way that the NFL was as much a cut-throat business as a game and that the definition of success, as All-Pro teammate Mike Haynes said it, was: "You understand in this game that you're a whore, the idea is to be a high-priced one" Christensen was grateful for whatever he could get.
"The Raiders asked one question: 'Can you play?' " he says. "I thought I could."
He stayed with the Raiders for 10 seasons, making All-Pro five times, winning two Super Bowls, becoming the highest-paid tight end in the league.
Winning the Super Bowls was downright euphoric for Christensen.
"It was like William Hurt asking Albert Brooks in the film 'Broadcast News': 'What happens when reality exceeds your dream?' And Albert Brooks answers: 'Keep it to yourself.' It was that good."
• Free to Be
The preeminent thing about playing for the Raiders of that era, alongside Howie Long and Lyle Alzado, wasn't the roguish, outlaw, silver-and-black stereotype, Christensen says. It was the freedom each player had to be who he was, and that was all good, as long as he was responsible enough to do his job on the field.
Hence, surrounded by rowdy personalities, the good tight end was left to believe in his religion, to read his scriptures and judiciously quote them, too. He was sometimes chided by the chain-and-biker mentalities, but Christensen was amply allowed to pursue his spirituality just like others pursued their beer and women.
Toughness was never an issue.
One time, Christensen and former All-Pro cornerback Willie Brown had an in-depth discussion over who was the manliest player.
"I quoted Martin Luther King to him," Christensen says. " 'My ability to withstand your punishment will outlast your ability to proffer it.' "
The difference between offense and defense, he adds, isn't a matter of toughness, it's just that "one creates, and the other destroys."
"Mentally, I always thought I was the toughest guy out there," he says. "It comes back to intellectual arrogance, but I thought I was the smartest guy on the field."
After gallbladder surgery before the '89 season, cognitive power fell victim to weakened physical condition, however, and Christensen decided to walk away from the game at 33. Opportunities in television beckoned, but it was a decision he regretted later, leaving football so soon.
Still, he took immense satisfaction from his accomplishments in his time. In fact, while he hesitates to say it, Christensen could adeptly argue that he belongs in the NFL Hall of Fame. The numbers are there, just not the votes. Not yet. Other tight ends of his era are already enshrined Kellen Winslow and Ozzie Newsome but Christensen says he is content to sit and wait and see.
"Who is rich?" he quotes. "He who rejoices in his portion."
Upon invitation, though, Christensen gallops straight through the door of enthusiasm for induction, saying: "I would enjoy the Hall of Fame for a couple of reasons. I'd like to stand up there and say it all started with my mom, who hosed the mud off of me when I was a kid. And I'm a sports historian. That's probably indigenous to the Mormon culture. We're a documented society. We keep records and journals. Plus, I'm supremely confident I would give an outstanding [acceptance] speech. I've already gotten three-fourths of it written in my head."
If you knew nothing else of Christensen, those sentiments may reveal and explain him as well as anything.
The part about keeping journals is huge. He has kept personal journals since he was a young man.
"He's written in them for as long as I can remember," says his eldest son, Toby, a 22-year-old sophomore at BYU. "He's got volumes and volumes of them."
Over a chicken salad, Christensen doesn't much discuss the volumes, but, to him, they have a clear and important significance, detailing his life for whomever may read them in the future. With football out of the way, at least the playing part Christensen says he will, at some level, eventually coach the game he so thoroughly knows he concentrates now on raising his youngest sons, on taking notes, on reading significant books.
Family Ties: He dabbles in business endeavors, does some broadcasting for ESPN, studies voraciously and works out for hours every day. No question, the man is in shape. "He rides the bike for an hour, does abs for a half-hour, and lifts for an hour," says Toby. "He's still driven." Christensen, who says he's about as strong and fast as he ever was, believes he could have played right up to his 40th birthday. Instead, family matters with wife Kathleen and boys Toby; Tory, 21; T.J., 17; and Teren, 13 are now central to his focus.
"Toby is our reigning receiver at BYU," a proud papa says. "Tory is on a [LDS] mission in Portugal, T.J. knocked in the only run in the championship baseball game between Lone Peak High and Payson High. And Teren is the world's best 'Jumbles' a word game solver. He's pretty buff, too, but not as good looking as his dad."
Another thing about Teren: he was born with spina bifida, a congenital neurological condition that affects the vertebral column. In Teren's case, his lower extremities did not fully develop. He has endured 15 operations, and Christensen says he is "cautiously optimistic" about his son's overall condition.
Certainly, he is appreciative of assistance and support offered Teren from medical staffs, teachers, and neighbors. And proud of the way a heavy burden has been carried.
"I marvel at his resilience," Christensen says. "Teren has been a great example for everyone. He doesn't complain or say, 'Why me?' I have great admiration for that. One of the things watching him does, is, it makes you wax philosophical. Henry James, the author, said, 'One of the purposes of life is to invest it in something that outlasts it.' There is something larger here. [Teren's experience] has softened me. I can say that unabashedly. It's made all of us in our family better, watching him."
Between bites of tortilla chips and dip, Christensen goes on, borrowing passages from some of the great thinkers of the past few centuries, spewing words only a thesaurus could untangle. He sets aside study time each day to nurture his thoughts.
Beneath all of it, however, he is and remains a sports junkie. Retirement hasn't diminished that. He can break down the NFL, college football, the NBA Finals, probably the French Open and the Belmont Stakes, and then, if he feels like it, quote Emerson, too.
Well into middle age, always busy finding subjects to captivate his mind and things to do in Alpine, he says his life is meaningful and good.
"I'm fascinated by the fact that happiness seems to be a thoughtless state," Christensen says. "There are times when unexplained happiness courses through your veins, and others when you, for no reason, are miserable. More and more, I'm coming to know and understand what President Hinckley once said about life. The whole idea and concept of the quote is, when looking over your own life, despite its challenges and difficulties, it's important to simply stop and say what he said: 'Lord, thank you for the ride.' He said it well.
"That's what I say, too."