Long before he developed into one of the league’s most productive tight ends, Todd Christensen stood out among the colorful characters in the Raiders locker room.
Christensen died Wednesday as a result of complications from surgery. He battled liver disease and other unspecified illnesses in recent years, according to numerous reports. He was 57.
He joined the Raiders in 1979, a year after he entered the league as a second-round draft pick of the Dallas Cowboys. Christensen played for the Raiders in all but one game during his 10-year career.
From the time he arrived in Oakland, Christensen served notice that he wasn’t like most of his teammates in many ways, even though he blended in well on a team chock full of characters because he boasted the kind of quirkiness that owner Al Davis loved.
Former Raiders great Todd Christensen died at 57 on Wednesday. He was a five-time Pro Bowl tight end and a two-time Super Bowl champion with the Raiders. (Associated Press)
He sported a curly-haired mullet and distinct mustache, quoted big-name authors and read poetry aloud.
“He was an interesting guy,” current Raiders owner Mark Davis said. “He was a very, very smart guy, cerebral guy. He also was a wacky guy, a fun guy and a great receiver. Just a great guy all the way around.”
Christensen was thrown into a locker room littered with Pro Football Hall of Fame-bound players — Art Shell, Gene Upshaw, Ted Hendricks and Dave Casper — and big personalities such as John Matuszak, Lester Hayes, Kenny Stabler and Cliff Branch.
Yet, Christensen dared to be different, stayed true to his beliefs and carved out his own niche. He was a devout Mormon who didn’t drink alcohol and excelled at everything he tried.
“Todd was a Raider,” receiver Morris Bradshaw said. “His faith, his look, his eloquence, his vocabulary; you wouldn’t normally think someone that had those characteristics would fit into our team, but he fit in as well as anyone else.
“That was the magic. That you had all these characters, we were perceived as misfits, that we didn’t go together. … Yet we came together as a team.”
The Cowboys had envisioned Christensen playing fullback, but a broken foot in the final exhibition game in 1978 ended his rookie campaign before it began. Then-coach Tom Landry asked Christensen to convert to tight end the following summer, but he resisted was ultimately cut. He was signed by the Giants and played one game before ending up with the Raiders.
Tom Flores was the Raiders coach when Christensen arrived in 1979 and coached him for all but Christensen’s final season.
Flores said Christensen first played only special teams for the Raiders because veteran tight ends Casper and Raymond Chester were entrenched on the depth chart.
As time progressed, Flores used Christensen in a variety of roles — long-snapper, H-back and finally tight end.
“He did everything well,” Flores said. “He was just a talented all-around player.”
Christensen seemed to get just as much enjoyment from a dictionary and Thesaurus as he did from an NFL playbook.
“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?’ ”
Well, there was that one time in practice, when Christensen quoted author 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.”
Former NFL running back Mike Adamle got to know Christensen as a co-host of the show American Gladiators in the early 1990s. He told USA Today that Christiansen prided himself on being well versed on all subjects.
“He didn’t suffer fools very well,” Adamle said. ” … Whatever the topic was, you’d better come prepared to talk about it because he knew everything there was to know.”
And there wasn’t much that Christensen didn’t try. He self published three books of poetry, dabbled in acting and tried out for the A’s and California Angels after he retired from football.
He reportedly hit a home run during his workout with the A’s in 1990 and said afterward: “That was pretty exciting. I thought, ‘What’s there to this? It’s easy.’ ”
He failed to make it in the majors, so he tried his hand at track and field. Not surprising, Christensen set age-group world records in several events, including the heptathlon, while competing in masters events.
Christensen caught 461 passes for 5,872 yards and 41 touchdowns during his NFL career. He earned five Pro Bowl selections and was voted All-Pro twice.
In a TV interview several years ago, Christensen said he never took for granted what football provided.
“I realize that this is the dream of millions and yet I was living it out. My father had instructed me many years ago that there was only one sin, and that was the sin of ungratitude. … The son of a University of Oregon professor and a homemaker probably had no business being on this stage.”
Christensen dominated on the NFL stage from 1983-86, when he averaged 87 receptions for 1,099 yards and eight touchdowns.
He is survived by his wife and four sons.