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