Dick Harmon: BYU, Raiders tight end Todd Christensen was a larger than life superstar on and off the field

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 13 2013 6:25 p.m. MST

Former Raiders tight end and five-time Pro Bowler Todd Christensen died from complications during liver transplant surgery. He was 57. Before he played in the NFL, Christensen starred at BYU.

Mark A. Philbrick, BYU

LaVell Edwards will put to rest another one of his BYU football players. It’s a list that is growing as the Cougar football patriarch heads toward his ninth decade on this earth.

Todd Christensen, a larger-than-life personality on and off the field at BYU and the NFL, died early Wednesday morning in Salt Lake City after receiving a liver transplant. He never woke up from the complicated procedure. He was 57.

“Todd was a very, very interesting guy,” said Edwards. “He had great size, was very smart, a great athlete, a student of the game who was intelligent and always had a way with words.”

Christensen was a top-notch superstar, transforming the fullback position in offensive coordinator Doug Scovil’s mid-'70s Cougar offense to a deadly yard-gobbling weapon. Later, with the Oakland Raiders, he became one of the NFL’s hottest tight ends, a big-time playmaker who made five Pro Bowls and was All-Pro twice.

“He was the ultimate go-to guy,” said his BYU quarterback, Elder Gifford Nielsen, who's now a general authority of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“He was a great teammate, raised a great family and was successful in every part of his life,” said Nielsen, who pointed out how small the world is when he explained, “More than 25 years after we played together, my son Giff and Todd’s son Toby were missionary companions in Barcelona, Spain.”

For Edwards, the number of players who have preceded him in death is growing as natural diseases, freak accidents and even a homicide have ended many lives before their time.

That list includes former players Glen Redd, Craig Garrick, Scott Norberg, Ray Linford, Mark Allen, Dev Duke, Lloyd Jones, Brad Martin, Phil Nauahi, Ken Griffith, Mike May, Paul Crawford and Terrance Harvey. Griffith was the victim of a homicide. Norberg mysteriously died in an Arizona jail. Provoan Duke was volunteering in a Fourth of July booth when a microburst picked up the small shack and crashed it into him.

Christensen’s death, like many that come early, is a heart-wrenching affair for his loved ones. He’d waited as a sick man for many months to get his name atop a liver transplant list. When he made it, his family celebrated the blessing, the chance for Todd to have a healthy, extended life. He got the transplant but never woke up.

“I remember after Todd was drafted by the Cowboys and then went back east, he called me on the phone and we talked about his new team. I assumed it was back in New England, where he’d moved,” said Edwards. “He laughed and told me, no, he was in Oakland with the Raiders, ‘and they don’t care about personality.’”

Christensen was a personality. After his football career, while working as an NBC, ESPN and Mountain network commentator, he gave the world a glimpse of his famous vocabulary, his talent for turning a phrase, setting in motion a string of words that would make George Will blush with envy.

Elder Nielsen remembers at BYU, Christensen would use words in the huddle the rest of the team would have to later look up in a dictionary.

“He was outspoken. He had his opinion,” said teammate Roger Gourley, now a retired Provo fireman. “Sometimes it would drive you nuts with his big words and we’d tell him, ‘Shut up. You’re driving us nuts.’”

Smart, very intelligent, Christensen was always looking for ways to get better as a player, as a TV guy, and as a man. “He worked extremely hard. He was driven” said Gourley.

As a young sportswriter, I remember Christensen running out of the backfield in practice for passes. He was huge; it was like Nielsen was throwing to the canvas sail on a boat.

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