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Monson: Remembering BYU, Raider great Todd Christensen

Published November 14, 2013 11:20 pm

Football • Whether you loved him or thought he was full of himself, Christensen was compelling
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It's tough to write about a man based on memory, but in the case of Todd Christensen, to quote Paul Simon, that's all that's left you. Todd always favored a good quote. Upon the premature passing of the BYU star and Raiders All-Pro on Wednesday — he was only 57 — those memories stirred.

Of the thousands of people I've interviewed over the past 34 years, Christensen stands out as one of the more anomalous. That's a word he would have appreciated for a couple of reasons: 1) It accurately describes him, and 2) most people have no clue what it means.

Christensen loved big words, although he didn't really like talking about the fact that he loved big words. He wanted the words to speak for themselves. And if you didn't understand them, then pull out a Webster's and learn something new. He also had memorized a storage bin of quotes from some of the world's great thinkers. If a quote by a better man fit the moment, he unleashed it. As we sat in a Mexican restaurant in Provo 12 years ago during a two-plus-hour interview for a lengthy feature on him, when the discussion turned to his vast vocabulary, Christensen said: "I don't like the direction these questions are headed."

But there was no stopping them, and he knew that, too.

We talked — and argued — a lot that day, covering all kinds of ground. Either way, I was impressed by the man's depth and sincerity, by his love of family and his cognitive prowess. Over that span, he dropped a minimum of 15 10-dollar words and at least 15 philosophical quotes.

How many athletes — current or former — or sports broadcasters could string together a paragraph of polysyllabic words? How many quoted Thoreau and C.S. Lewis and Proverbs and Einstein and Gordon B. Hinckley and Shakespeare as a normal course of conversation?

Yeah … one.

And he sometimes got in trouble for it.

After his playing days were over, after he'd won two Super Bowls and been named All-Pro five times and been the highest-paid tight end in the NFL at one juncture, Christensen worked the booth as a color commentator for NBC. On one occasion, working a game alongside Jim Lampley, Christensen let loose with this beauty: "… a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." That's what Emerson said.

"Emerson Fittipaldi?" Lampley asked.

Who did Ralph Waldo play or drive for?

Network executives, who scolded him for that outburst, didn't like his kind of uppity talk.

But to Christensen, he was merely dispensing what he thought was meaningful communication. His father, Ned, a professor at the University of Oregon, said of his son back then: "Todd doesn't want to be seen as arrogant, although some people think he is. He just uses [big] words. When he was a little boy, he used to make up words. I found myself asking him, 'What does that mean?'"

Christensen insisted he never meant to make himself sound smarter than others or to make others feel stupid: "As Dick Cavett said, 'I'm intelligent, but not an intellectual.' I don't sit and ask myself profound questions. My words, it's not like I'm trying too hard. It's just the way I was brought up. My father used to say too many people's education ends with their diploma. I've continued to improve myself intellectually and spiritually. That's all I've tried to do. Perhaps it stands out because I'm a football player. Being a smart football player is like being a great surfer in Alaska."

Playing with a bunch of rogues on the Raiders, Christensen said he used his brainpower to his advantage: "Mentally, I always thought I was the toughest guy out there. It comes back to intellectual arrogance, but I thought I was the smartest guy on the field."

He said he once quoted Martin Luther King to former All-Pro cornerback Willie Brown: "'My ability to withstand your punishment will outlast your ability to proffer it.'"

Although Christensen never made the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he said back then that he was "supremely confident I would give an outstanding [acceptance] speech. I've already gotten three-fourths of it written in my head."

He also quoted, though: "Who is rich? He who rejoices in his portion."

During that interview, Christensen talked sports like a jock, recited his favorite quotes, used his big words and expressed love for his wife and kids. The last thing he said was this:

"I'm fascinated by the fact that happiness seems to be a thoughtless state. There are times when unexplained happiness courses through your veins, and others when you, for no reason, are miserable. More and more, I'm coming to know and understand what President Hinckley once said about life. The whole idea and concept of the quote is, when looking over your own life, despite its challenges and difficulties, it's important to simply stop and say what he said: 'Lord, thank you for the ride.' He said it well.

"That's what I say, too."

GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.