He was the ultimate go-to guy. He was a great teammate, raised a great family and was successful in every part of his life. —Elder Gifford Nielsen
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.
When you talked to him, you did need a dictionary.
Christensen took that quirk to Oakland, where his coaches and Raider teammates marveled and teased him over his command of the language. The son of a professor at the University of Oregon, that academic and intellectual thirst and delivery was always with him, said Edwards.
"He was a very intellectual sort of person," said Christensen’s quarterback with the Raiders, the legendary Jim Plunkett. "He always seemed to be the smartest person in the room."
His Raider coach, Tom Flores, told the San Jose Mercury News Wednesday that Christensen’s vocabulary certainly was unique in a football setting.
"He always came up with big words," Flores said. "Most of the time, most people didn't know what the hell they meant, so they would ignore him.
"He always made his point that, 'I know big words.' I never challenged him on, 'Do you know what it means?'" Flores said that once in practice, Christensen quoted Henry David Thoreau, one of his favorites.
"So, I gave him a quote from Tennessee Williams and told him to get the (heck) in the huddle," Flores said. "He said, 'Touche, Coach,' and got back in the huddle. That's the way you countered him."
When Todd’s son Toby followed in his father’s footsteps at BYU, he immediately became the media’s favorite interview. Like his father, he was smart and knew the game and how to explain its nuances.
I remember at Toby’s BYU practices Todd Christensen was almost always there on the sidelines, watching his son, always in respectful repose, never pushing himself on coaches or other players. He was an icon, but one that revered the moment and respected the space.
When he spoke, it was thoughtful and sometimes really in the prose he loved. When he knew he’d be on a mic, he had a way of speaking that beckoned to be put to music.
Todd Christensen was a workout junkie and a constant figure at the Smith Fieldhouse on BYU’s campus or Gold’s Gym in American Fork, even after he became ill.
“He left quite a legacy,” said Gourley. “He was very determined in everything he did. This, his death is amazing. It is shocking. Last time I talked to him a year ago he was optimistic but told me he wasn’t in the best of circumstances.”
Christensen’s football records are in the books. His statistics will forever speak of his talent, his game and his play. The videos of his work as an analyst, his columns in the Daily Herald in Provo, and his language skills are digitally archived forever.
In a book by BYU associate athletic director Duff Tittle titled, “What It Means To Be A Cougar,” Christensen’s chapter ends with sage advice for us all:
“I have always tried to operate by the belief that men are made or broken in their idle hours. I was encouraged to do things on my own and to be a self-starter. I think that’s a big, big deal.
“Whether it is studying in class or working out, it’s what you do on your own that’s going to set you apart. You have the group dynamic, and that’s a good thing, but it’s the preparation on your own, when nobody is watching, that’s going to set you apart.”
Up to and through the time he waited for the liver transplant he so desperately needed, that was his script.
“If you needed something big,” said Nielsen of a football play, “you always had Todd Christensen. Who wouldn’t want that?”
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.