Vai's View: Todd Christensen was an extraordinary athlete, intellectual, humorist and mentor

Published: Friday, Nov. 15 2013 12:45 a.m. MST

Todd Christensen starred at BYU and in the NFL. He died Wednesday following complications from liver transplant surgery.

Mark A. Philbrick, BYU

I was not in Todd Christensen's inner circle. We weren’t BFFs or Facebook friends, nor did we call, text, email or follow each other on Twitter. I don’t even know if he tweeted. We weren’t on each other’s Christmas card lists. But our paths crossed numerous times in our NFL careers and it was always memorable. After we retired from football and pursued broadcasting careers, he was always gracious when we bumped into each other at BYU functions or games.

The first time I ever saw him was in 1977, Todd’s senior year. I was a 15-year-old high school sophomore. Our season had just ended. It was mid-November, and BYU was visiting Arizona State. The Cougars were playing without All-American QB Gifford Nielsen, whose knee was blown out earlier that season at Oregon State. Both teams were in the top 20: BYU 13th and ASU 17th, with the Sun Devils in their final year in the WAC before joining the Pac-10 with the University of Arizona. I was with a group of my buddies, all of us Sun Devil fans. The one Cougar who earned my admiration was No. 33, Todd Christensen. He was a brute — the lone BYU player who seemed to match the Devils' physical style of play. In the second half, he scored a touchdown in the end zone where we sat. He kneeled on one knee, held the ball in his right hand and shook it like dice, then rolled it across the grass. This, after he had previously fumbled a couple of times. I thought, “This guy is crazy.”

The first time we met was at the Pro Bowl my rookie year in the NFL in 1986. He led the league that year with 95 receptions, more than 1,100 yards and eight TDs. He had been the Raiders starting tight end for a number of years, an established player with two Super Bowls who had been voted to his fourth Pro Bowl. I was there as one of two rookies voted to the NFC squad. There’s a fraternity among NFL players who play at the same college, but it’s heightened among BYU players because of our shared faith in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. When we met, Todd gathered his family and introduced me to his wife Kathy and his children. His oldest son, Toby, who would later play at BYU, was 7 and remembers his dad's introduction this way: “Toby, this is Vai Sikahema. He plays for the Cardinals, but more importantly, he’s a BYU guy and member of the church." "My dad was voted to five Pro Bowls, but for some reason, he only took us to that one and I remember meeting you primarily because he introduced you as a ‘BYU’ guy and member of the church," Toby told me. "Otherwise, I wouldn’t have remembered it as I didn’t know you. But that’s what was important to my dad.’”

Frankly, I didn't remember it as Toby had, but I did have a memorable meeting with Todd and Kathy after the Pro Bowl. I was so mesmerized by sharing a locker room with Walter Payton, Ronnie Lott, Jerry Rice and Lawrence Taylor that I was completely overwhelmed for the game. I fumbled three punts in the swirling Hawaii trade winds at Aloha Stadium, losing two of them, which led to 10 AFC points that determined the outcome. I was humiliated. Following the game, my wife Keala (who grew up on the North Shore) and I spent a few extra days in her hometown to relax and recuperate. A couple of days after my disastrous performance in the Pro Bowl, my wife and I were in the Laie Temple. As we finished our session and entered the Celestial Room, there sat the Christensens holding hands on a love seat. Todd glanced up, noticed me and, rising to his feet, waved his right arm in the air above his head, back and forth, as if he was fair-catching a punt. The playful gesture, in such a somber setting, was so funny that I nearly burst out laughing. We approached, hugged, and in my ear, Todd whispered, “Forget about it. It happens. This (the temple) is what’s important. You will be fine and you’ll have a great career.”

We were in the temple trying to be reminded of how fortunate we were to be at the Pro Bowl, but Todd’s words gave me comfort, renewed confidence and hope that my career wouldn’t implode before it even started.

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