Vai's View: Todd Christensen was an extraordinary athlete, intellectual, humorist and mentor
Todd Christensen, in my observation, was the cocky college star who rolled dice in the end zone, the irreverent humorist who signaled “fair catch” in the temple, and compassionate mentor who offered encouragement to a distraught and overwhelmed rookie.
He also went to great lengths to display his enormous intellect and physical prowess. Seven or eight years ago, he came to New Jersey to compete in something called the Masters Track and Field Championship, where he won the national title in the decathlon for men 45 years and older. Following his NFL career, he actually got a tryout with the Oakland A’s, where he hit bombs in batting practice at Alameda County Stadium that impressed Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire. He was a left-handed hitting first baseman and right fielder. “At the time,” Toby told me, “he was 32 and the A’s told him that they would sign him, but they didn’t think he’d be interested in starting in A-ball, riding buses and working his way to the majors after a decade as a star NFL tight end.”
I was in Chicago with the Christensens a few months following the Pro Bowl for a banquet hosted by Walter Payton where we both received awards. In his acceptance speech, he recited, with a straight face and without a hitch, a long oration from Shakespeare’s "Julius Caesar" that included, “Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once. Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, it seems to me most strange that men should fear; seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come.” The ballroom in the Grand Hyatt was at first confused, then howled in laughter and in the end, rose in uproarious applause with shouts of “ENCORE! ENCORE!” It was an incredible scene. He owned the room and returned to his seat triumphantly, having completely stolen the evening. He had performed it with such flair and deadpan panache that he would've been believable on a Broadway stage. When I was introduced a few minutes later, all I could muster at the podium was, “I’m proud to claim that I hail from Todd Christensen’s alma mater, Brigham Young University. Thank you very much.” I returned to my seat with a modicum of polite laughter and scattered applause.
Throughout his career, Todd had a sense for the dramatic — on the field and stage. In 1994, he appeared on the TV show, "Married With Children." A few years ago, he won the role of Captain Georg Von Trapp in American Fork Community Theater's play, "The Sound of Music." When he leaned in to kiss the woman playing Maria, Toby yelled, "No, Dad!" The crowd erupted in laughter. "My Mom," Toby told me, "leaned forward from her seat down our aisle, grinned and gave me a thumbs up." It was hilarious.
He had a beautiful baritone voice. My friend Bob Evans, a news anchor at Fox 13 in Salt Lake City, once told me that a few years ago, he was leaving the high council room of his Alpine stake center after a meeting and headed to his car. As he walked down the hallway, he heard this beautiful, operatic voice emanating from the chapel where there was a sacrament meeting in progress. Curious, he cracked the door and peeked in. "There was Todd, on the stand next to the pianist, singing the 'special musical number' in the most amazing voice I had heard," Evans told me. "I could not believe it was Todd Christensen, a BYU classmate whom I had cheered in college and the NFL. I was completely blown away."
Todd was famously vain, wearing his hair in long, flowing, curly locks in the mullet style of the ‘80s with a big, burly mustache that made him look like the pirate on the Raiders logo. But he was also a dedicated member-missionary in a locker room of non-believers, teaching and baptizing the Raiders starting free safety in Super Bowl XV and XVIII, Burgess Owens, and his wife Josie. Burgess was baptized at a time when African-American members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were still relatively new, much less one who played college ball at Miami and was a Raider. Burgess has since served in bishoprics and high councils in the Philadelphia area, where he was a financial analyst for more than 20 years. The Owens recently retired to Draper to be closer to their six children and grandchildren who graduated from BYU and all live in Utah. They called on the Christensens home in Alpine this week to offer their support and condolences.
Toby told me his dad loathed mediocrity. “Dad demanded that we do our best. He rewarded us kids for straight A’s, buying us anything we wanted under $100. Once, I had all A’s, but one was an A-minus. Wasn’t good enough. I protested and cried, but he was firm. ‘Son, a deal is a deal. Straight A’s was our agreement.’”
Todd Christensen was an extraordinary athlete, yet he was like all of us. Complicated and simple. Vain and compassionate. Intelligent and irreverent. Passionate and indifferent. Faithful and rebellious. A Cougar and a Raider.
Consider the following poem "The Autumn Wind" from Steve Sabol, the late NFL Films President:
The Autumn Wind is a raider
Pillaging just for fun
He’ll knock you ‘round and upside down
And laugh when he’s conquered and won
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