From Peyton Manning to Tom Brady, Clyde Christensen has a quarterback connection
As the Tampa Bay Buccaneers boarded their buses last Sunday to leave Lambeau Field, where they had just upset the Green Bay Packers to earn a trip to Super Bowl LV, Tom Brady assumed his regular seat across the aisle from quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen.
Even in the age of social distancing, Brady and Christensen are inseparable — two legends laser-focused on the same prize.
“We’re sitting in the back of the bus, and I’m looking up at all these signs saying Title Town and Lambeau Field,” Christensen said. “And our talk as we were driving out was, ‘Why us? How does this happen?’ The playoffs are a time when you gratefully retrospect your life. You think about how we got here, how many people helped us along the way. … How lucky am I?”
In a phone call this week, Brady said: “We sit next to each other on the bus every road game. He and I get a chance to talk about everything that happened in the game. Kind of our little therapy session, win or lose. He’s got great perspective. When I’m sitting there listening, I’m very much — the story isn’t about me — but for him to say, ‘How lucky am I,’ I feel the same way. How lucky am I?”
Brady is not alone. Christensen, a minister’s son from Covina who lived with Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor in college and was taken in by the family of Rev. Billy Graham, has legions of NFL quarterbacks who regard him as the best of the best.
“He’s one of my favorite coaches of all time,” Peyton Manning said.
“I truly think he embraces the idea of being a coach, a mentor, and a solid rock in someone’s life,” Andrew Luck said.
“He’s a football guru. There’s no scheme, no quarterback thing, no defense that he’s not an expert in, yet it always starts with relationships.”
Trent Dilfer on Clyde Christensen
Put simply by Trent Dilfer: “He’s my hero in football.”
At 64, Christensen is half a lifetime removed from his days as a muscular, workmanlike quarterback at Fresno City College and North Carolina, where he met the Grahams and shared a four-person suite for two years with Taylor. Long gone is that floppy, shoulder-length hair that, as Dilfer says, made Christensen look like an extra from “That ‘70s Show.”
Yet he still has that tanned, round, boyish face and mischievous spirit that prompts him to turn quarterback drills into carnival games and trade needling jabs with his players.
Here are some of the favorite NFL memories of longtime offensive guru Clyde Christensen, currently quarterbacks coach in Tampa Bay, and his players.
“He’s got this sheepish grin about him that’s just kind of egging you on,” said former quarterback Brad Johnson, who played for Christensen in Tampa. “He’s just going to poke you in the side a little bit. He just wants to see the bulldog come out of you. He makes everything fun.”
Christensen and Brady spent 13 years on the opposite sides of the simmering rivalry between the Indianapolis Colts, where Christensen was an offensive fixture, and the New England Patriots, where Brady secured six Lombardi Trophies, a record for any individual quarterback. This week, Christensen playfully congratulated him on finally getting to the Super Bowl the honest way.
“He’s so cruel,” Brady said with a laugh. “But believe me, I get him right back. There’s not a dig that he gets in that I don’t have a retort. We have a great back and forth. It’s very enjoyable.”
Whereas Brady draws a crowd wherever he goes, Christensen could walk unrecognized through throngs of NFL fans. He’s largely anonymous, and likes it that way.
“Clyde’s the unicorn of coaches,” Dilfer said. “His passion far exceeds his ambition to move up. He could have had any job. Peyton’s a kingmaker. Tom’s a kingmaker. He could have anything. He’s chosen relationships over everything. He’s a football guru. There’s no scheme, no quarterback thing, no defense that he’s not an expert in, yet it always starts with relationships.
“He wants to make sure you’re good first. Because the rest isn’t going to be sticky if you’re not good, meaning just in a good place as a human.”
Christensen’s football odyssey began with college jobs at Mississippi, East Tennessee State, Temple — where he first worked with current Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians — East Carolina, Holy Cross, South Carolina, Maryland, and Clemson.
In 1996, he jumped to the NFL and variously worked as a position coach and offensive coordinator with Tampa Bay, Indianapolis, and Miami, before returning to the Buccaneers with Arians in 2019. Christensen won a Super Bowl ring during the 2006 season, coaching wide receivers for the Colts.
“Let’s face it,” Manning said, “head coaches get a lot of attention. The coordinators get a lot of attention. Clyde’s been a coordinator a couple times now, but he’s been an assistant coach for a long time. It shocks me that he hasn’t been a head coach because he checks all the boxes and he’s such a good natural leader. He’s got no ego. If that bothers him, I’ve never heard him complain about it.”
Said former receiver Brandon Stokley, among Christensen’s favorite players: “He’s just a special man. He lets you know he cares about you. You don’t see that a whole lot in the coaching profession in the NFL. He’s one of a kind.”
As a coach, Christensen’s guiding principle is to focus wholly on the task at hand and concentrate on relationships with his players, as opposed to scanning the horizon for the bigger, better opportunity.
“Football is an all-in deal, so there’s more to it than just football,” Manning said. “Clyde was always great in that way, checking in on players, understanding what’s going on in their lives back home. That’s what made him so special.”
In the spring of 2003, when Dilfer’s 5-year-old son, Trevin, died of a heart condition, Christensen flew to Seattle and spent several weeks comforting the family.
“When I think about Clyde, a big smile comes to my face, because he’s a great coach, obviously, he connects with people. But he’s just one of the finest, kindest people I’ve ever met in my life.”
“He literally is my hero,” Dilfer said of the coach with a catch in his voice. “I’ve modeled my parenting around Clyde. He’s my standard for any human that’s in football, how to be a parent and a husband.”
A devout Christian who with Tony Dungy helped form an organization called All Pro Dad, Christensen unflinchingly speaks of his humble beginnings, how he was born to a 15-year-old unwed girl, and adopted shortly thereafter by June and Dick Christensen, a minister in Covina.
In recent years, only after both of his parents had died, Christensen was able to locate and communicate with his birth mother.
“I did a thing on adoption on the radio, and I got a bunch of letters from moms who said, ‘We loved your interview, and we put our son up for adoption and just always wonder what happened to him,’ ” he said. “So I told my wife, `There’s a day coming where we just have to find her. I don’t need anything other than to just write her a thank-you note, just to let her know it turned out great.’”
So that’s what Christensen did, with the help of his wife, Debbie. They were able to track down his hospital records and made a connection with his birth mother, who indicated an interest in hearing more.
“I sent her a picture of myself, my grandkids, my daughters,” Christensen said. “I told her, ‘I don’t know you. I don’t know anything about you. But I just wanted to let you know I appreciate your decision.’ ”
Christensen is a storyteller. Your phone will run out of charge before he does. He laces his coaching talks with life lessons.
“In quarterback meetings, he’d give a little three-minute Mr. Miyagi sermonette where you’d be like, ‘What is this even about?’ ” said Matt Hasselbeck, one of his quarterbacks in Indianapolis. “By the end of it, you were like, ‘Wow, that was a nugget of wisdom.’ It can kind of turn into a word picture or phrase where you’re just leading the team.”
Sometimes, Christensen would bring in a guest speaker to hammer home his point. For example, at one point with the Colts, Luck was throwing for a lot of touchdowns but there were too many turnovers. He was being too reckless with the football or, as Christensen would put it, “a little too much adventure on your throwaways.”
In response, Christensen brought in a friend, Admiral James “Sandy” Winnefeld, who at the time was the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Christensen and Manning would later join Winnefeld and the troops on a military trip to Afghanistan.
“He came to us the night before a game,” Hasselbeck recalled of Winnefeld. “We’re not talking Xs and O’s, we’re talking to an admiral. And he basically gave Andrew and us this talk that he would give fighter pilots in the Navy who were flying F-16s. ‘Hey, this F-16 does not belong to you. You’re entrusted with it, but it does not belong to you. It costs this much money, and it belongs to taxpayers. ... That football, Andrew, does not belong to you. It belongs to the team. You’re entrusted with it. But it’s not yours to be careless with.’
“He talked about how they trained their guys to know when to hit eject, can’t fly scared, but you have to fly aggressive. Protect the F-16 — protect the ball ... stuff like that. It sticks with you forever. Is it 10 minutes that could have been spent on, ‘Hey, if the tackle’s inside shade we’re going to run outside ...’? Yeah, sure, fine. But that’s why it’s a sermonette and not a sermon.”
Tom Brady, arguably the best QB in NFL history, will try to win his seventh title while Patrick Mahomes goes for No. 2 when they meet in Super Bowl LV.
For Christensen, it’s all part of the rich memories gathered over half a century in the game, where he now stands one victory from another Lombardi Trophy.
“That’s what’s absolutely phenomenal about this job and profession that I chose,” he said. “That’s what I love about it. That’s why I do it. And that’s why I’m the wealthiest, most blessed man ever.”
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