Todd Christensen tribute
Obituary and viewing and funeral information for the Nov. 16 funeral are available here.
On Nov. 13, 2013, former BYU football great Todd Christensen passed away due to complications from surgery. During the fall of 2010, I had the pleasure of interviewing nearly 60 former players, coaches and administrators for a historical book on BYU football — among them was Todd.
We met for over an hour. As always, he was gracious, fascinating, thoughtful, bright and engaging. Later I had a difficult time condensing everything he shared with me into a single chapter. Below is an excerpt from the book What It Means To Be A Cougar with Todd sharing his experience at BYU in his own words.
I’m grateful I had the opportunity to work with Todd on many occasions throughout my career. On behalf of BYU Athletics, we express our love and condolences to his wife Kathy and the Christensen family. – Duff Tittle
I grew up in Eugene, Oregon. One Saturday in December I turned on our old Hoffman TV set with the big green tube. The Giants and the Browns were playing and I watched Jim Brown run. At that point in time, at the age of seven, I became in love with football. My father bought me a Voit football. I would go over to Country Lane Park and practice by myself.
When I was a kid Jim Brown was the man, and so I wanted to play running back. I wanted to play fullback because back in the day the fullback was the guy who carried the ball. A lot of the great runners at that time were fullbacks—Brown, Franco Harris, and Jim Taylor of the Packers. So, that’s what I wanted to do.
I played four sports growing up—football, basketball, baseball, and track. Football at that point in time, for whatever reason, seemed to connect with me emotionally—the rhythm of it, the stop and start, the bursts of energy, not to mention the collision part. Early on I realized that if I put my head down and collided it didn’t bother me as much as it did the other young kids, and so I think that is one of the contributing factors as to why I played the game.
My junior year in high school was a breakthrough year. I had led the district in rushing. At that point I was almost 6’ 2” and weighed about 190 pounds. That’s not huge, but in 1972, that was actually a fairly good-sized running back. It was at that point that I started to get recruiting letters from Oregon State, Wyoming, and some other schools.
BYU contacted me really late. My father happened to be the LDS bishop of the university ward at the University of Oregon. In December, about seven weeks before the actual signing day, my father got a letter from BYU saying, “We understand that you have a son who is a pretty good football player.” It was around Christmastime. I thought, “After my senior year, in December, they finally throw me a bone? Aren’t they a little late coming in here?” My very first plane flight was from Portland to Salt Lake for a recruiting trip to BYU.
Eventually, it came down to three schools—Oregon, Oregon State, and BYU. This is 1974, and Oregon and Oregon State were absolutely horrible. They were really bad. You know, something like 3-8 and 2-9. They were awful. Oregon State wanted me to play linebacker. Oregon had recruited me to play defensive end.
The one thing BYU and running back coach J.D. Helm did is they told me, “You can play offense.” I’m 17 years old, I’m a hard-core LDS fellow, I’m the son of a bishop and a wonderful lady who was a stake Relief Society president—all of those things that are indigenous to the Mormon culture.
As the day approached, I just didn’t have very good feelings about either Oregon school. Oregon State had “The Great Pumpkin,” coach Dee Andros. He actually came to my house the night before the signing, telling me, “We’re the Beavers. We really want you.”
So the day of the signing, sure enough, J.D. Helm calls up and says, “We have a grant-and-aid for you.” I can still remember my mother when I got off the phone, grabbing me and telling me that we needed to kneel down and pray—express our gratitude. Looking back I’m certainly grateful for making that decision to attend BYU.
In retrospect, one of the proudest moments that I have in terms of my playing career—collegiately and professionally—is that I was a part of that 1974 team. I was like eighth string to begin the season. Then a variety of things happened, and finally they looked and said, “You know, maybe this kid from Oregon can play.” Eventually I started. I wouldn’t say I was a major contributor, but I certainly contributed to the success of that team.
Gary Shiede was the gunslinger. We had terrific receivers like John Betham. We had a runner in Jeff Blanc who did some great things, but really, I thought it was our defense that was just tremendous throughout that season.
We made it to the Fiesta Bowl—BYU’s first bowl game. It was a big, big deal to go to a bowl game. If Sheide hadn’t gotten hurt, I’m pretty sure that we would have beaten Oklahoma State. I take great pride in the fact that my class of 1974 really started LaVell (Edwards) on his path to winning as many conference titles and going to the bowl games he did.
Early on, I was a glorified guard who every now and then they’d throw a ball to. I understood that because we had a quality tailback in Jeff Blanc. As my career at BYU progressed I started to run the ball a little bit more and when they realized I could catch the ball, the position really evolved to where I was a pass catcher. In fact, I think it was my junior year I actually led the conference in receptions, which seems strange for a fullback. Then the next year I averaged I think close to 12 yards a catch on 50 catches.
During that period of time BYU had some outstanding offensive coordinators. Doug Scovil in particular was just a whiz in terms of maximizing what he had to work with. Certainly guys like Gifford Nielsen and Marc Wilson were the beneficiaries of his expertise. I remember practices where he would say, “You know, about two o’clock this morning I was sitting there with my pencil and pad…” Back then, people weren’t doing the 24/7-football thing, but Doug really lived, ate, and breathed football. He wasn’t one of those guys who were passive about it. He saw a big picture. He maximized what he had to work with.
Even though he was a tough guy and not altogether friendly to be around, he understood offensive football, and he understood what he had to work with, so he never made the players adapt to a system. He adapted the system to what he had to work with. In the case of Gifford Nielsen, here was a guy who was a drop-back passer, very accurate. Then Marc Wilson comes in because Nielsen hurt his knee, and suddenly we’re rolling out and doing some things differently in the middle of the season because Doug was able to adjust and adapt to what he had to work with in terms of Marc Wilson. I have nothing but respect and good things to say about Doug Scovil.
I’m really proud of the fact that our group came to BYU in 1974, and by the time we left in 1977 football was a big deal in Provo. The crowds were coming, offensive records being broken. I like to think that my group, John Van Der Wouden, Roger Gourley, Mekeli Ieremia, Keith Uperesa, a number of other great players, helped make football relevant in Provo. Better recruiting, better facilities, expansion of the stadium, all of those different things that now bespeak Brigham Young football—they weren’t existent when we started, so I think that we have reason to be proud that we contributed to the program the way we did.
As much as I enjoyed my experience as a player at BYU, I actually enjoyed being a student more. Not only did BYU educate me in terms of life, but also the professors who I encountered were people of integrity and dignity who wanted to do the right thing for the students. My older brother was a tremendous influence as well. He got back from his mission in Brazil and we lived together. He was a brilliant student. He didn’t allow me to fall into the “living with three football players in the apartment” kind of thing. I was very fortunate to be part of an institution like BYU, and associate with people of the highest caliber.
I also learned fairly well to be a spear-carrier; that it wasn’t always about the star. That was something that I learned at BYU. The quarterback was always featured when I was at BYU. I realize that there were an awful lot of people behind the scenes who were working hard, who were playing some tremendous football, but who won’t get the same amount of credit. Harold B. Lee, the former prophet, made famous this statement, “There’s no limit to the amount of work we can do if no one cares who gets the credit.” I was around a lot of people at BYU who genuinely lived that mantra.
I owe a debt to the university, to the community. My wife, our four sons, and myself attended BYU. The university created a work ethic for me. I have always tried to operate by the mantra 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.
Todd Christensen led BYU in receiving for three straight years from 1975-77. As a senior in 1977 he was named first-team All-Western Athletic Conference and also an honorable mention All-American by the Associated Press. Christensen was selected in the second round of the 1978 NFL Draft by the Dallas Cowboys. He played 10 seasons in the NFL with the New York Giants and the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders. Christensen won two Super Bowls with the Raiders and was selected to play in the Pro Bowl five times.
Todd Christensen’s official BYU bio can be found HERE.
BYU football wrapped up its first week of fall camp with its fifth practice on Saturday morning.