Todd Christensen dies at 57; record-setting NFL tight end

As an eloquent and colorful All-Pro tight end for the Los Angeles Raiders, Todd Christensen seemed to have a playbook in one hand and a dictionary in the other.

“All you’d have to say was, `Todd, will you just shut up? Give me a $2 word instead of a $10 word,’” teammate Matt Millen recalled Wednesday. “Todd would just laugh.”

Christensen, a practicing Mormon who didn’t drink but for years struggled with liver problems, died Wednesday from complications during liver transplant surgery at Intermountain Medical Center near his home in Alpine, Utah. He was 57.


A running back at Brigham Young University, Christensen became a tight end in the NFL and played 10 seasons for the Oakland and L.A. Raiders, winning Super Bowl rings in 1981 and 1984. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound Christensen was among the tight ends at the cutting edge, those who did some blocking but were more adept as receivers.

“There was a stretch for us where, if there was a big catch that was made, Todd made it,” Hall of Fame running back Marcus Allen said Wednesday. “He’d trap it with his body at high risk. He came down with the ball.”

In 1983, Christensen caught 92 passes, at the time setting the league record for tight ends. He would break his own record three years later with 95 catches. He made five Pro Bowls.

“Todd Christensen never caught a pass in his life that he didn’t have more people hanging on him than a Cairo streetcar,” Times columnist Jim Murray wrote in 1988. “He looks like he’s leaking people when he goes over the goal line. Most of the time, his aren’t the only hands on the football. Some of his receptions are more like interceptions.”

Born Aug. 3, 1956, in Bellfonte, Pa., Todd Jay Christensen was the son of Ned and June Christensen, both of whom attended BYU. Todd would start the first game of his freshman year — a rarity at the school — and go on to reach the BYU Hall of Fame.

Christensen is perhaps best remembered in the NFL as the mustachioed and eccentric son of a professor, who read his own poetry at a Super Bowl news conference, and in a half-hour interview with The Times’ Mark Heisler in 1985 quoted Shakespeare, Andy Warhol, C.S. Lewis, the Bible, “The Big Chill” and Raiders teammate Frank Hawkins.

Christensen, who retired from the pros after the 1988 season, was an NFL color commentator on NBC from 1990 to 1994, then did analysis for ESPN and later the now-defunct Mountain West Sports Network. In the 2012 season, he covered Navy games for CBS.

“For a lot of people, Todd was a sesquipedalian,” said Allen, using a word that means a person who uses long words. “A lot of people couldn’t understand Todd, but I understood him. He talked over a lot of people’s heads, but I always understood Todd.”

In fact, Christensen and Allen became good friends, and they had a ritual of walking out of the tunnel onto the field together for every game.

“We’d wait around for each other and make sure we were ready,” Allen said. “I didn’t go without him, and he didn’t go without me. My brother still has a picture of the two of us walking out of the tunnel together.”

Their bond was forged by the belief both Christensen and Allen had that they were overlooked coming out of college. That makes sense for Christensen, who was a second-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys in 1978 but was cut the summer of his rookie year after suffering a broken foot in the exhibition finale. Allen, however, won the Heisman Trophy at USC and was picked 10th by the Raiders in 1982.

“There were a lot of people who didn’t think I would amount to much in the NFL, and it was the same way for Todd,” Allen said. “Part of what made Todd great was all those naysayers, all those people that doubted him fueled him, made him fight to become the player he became.”

Christensen’s survivors include his wife and four sons.