Life and times with Todd Christensen
It was just a normal Wednesday morning at the Appeal. As per my custom, I started checking the various wire files to see what might make the Thursday paper.
When I got to the pro football area, a slug caught my eye — Obit-Christensen. I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. That can’t be Todd I said to myself. Unfortunately when I opened the file, the feeling became worse. Todd Christensen had indeed died of complications from a liver transplant at the tender age of 57.
I met Christensen in the late 1970s after he was waived by Dallas and picked up by the Raiders. That proved to be one of the wisest decisions that late Oakland owner Al Davis ever made. Christensen was part of two Super Bowl-winning teams in 1981 and 1984. He finished a stellar career with 467 catches for 5,872 yards and 41 scores, a team record. He went over the 1,000-yard mark three times in his career.
When I first met Todd in 1979, I thought he was brash and arrogant. As we got better acquainted, I learned that was a facade. He could be flippant, yes, but he was a very smart, albeit down-to-earth guy. It was in Santa Rosa when I did my first sit-down with him. The Raiders were training at the legendary El Rancho Tropicana. As Christensen trudged off the field after the morning workout, I asked if he had time for a chat. He asked that I come by his room after lunch and we could do the interview there. I spent the next 45 minutes going over some questions to ask and get some comments about Todd from his teammates.
Some rooms at the El Rancho had sliding glass doors and others had your regular door. Christensen’s was sliding glass. When I knocked, he yelled “it’s open”. As I walked into the room, I was surprised at how neat it was. Training camp is a brutal time. Six weeks living in what amounts to a sardine can, yet except for the unmade bed, there wasn’t clothing strewn all over the place. The second surprise was that Christensen was watching All My Children.
It turns out that he watched it all the time, and even said that many of his teammates did. Admittedly, I watched that show when I was much younger. As the interview progressed, I found out how well-versed he was on a variety of subjects, especially literature. He was your atypical football player, and a true Renaissance man. Before the championship game in 1984 in Seattle, he read a 15-verse poem that he’d written about the Raiders, and the press corps, normally a jaded group, gave him a standing ovation.
“I remember Todd as always using big words and quoting famous authors and poets,” said ex-Oakland coach Tom Flores, who coached Christensen for several years, through a release issued by the Raiders. “He was comical because no one knew what he was talking about.”
Christensen was one of the more approachable guys on the Raiders, and like most of his teammates, he liked to play cards.
The game of choice back then was Crazy 8s. The team would have tournaments, and it was a popular game while waiting to catch a flight for a road game. Christensen would invite me to play every once in a while, and he drummed me regularly. He gave me the nickname “Lame”. Even some of his teammates called me that. I just laughed. There wasn’t much I could do about it. It’s not like I’m going to tell Gene Upshaw or Art Shell to knock it off. I told Todd one day I would get even, and he just laughed.
That time came sooner than I thought. We normally traveled United, but were on a different airline for our next trip which was a couple of weeks after he tagged me with the new name. I’m minding my own business in the middle of the plane when the writer next to me nudged and told me to look up. When I did, I saw Christensen motioning me to join him. I sighed and walked up to where he was sitting. He had a deck of cards in his hand, so I knew what that meant — more losses.
Then a magical thing happened. I won six straight hands, and after the fifth and sixth hands, I got up and did a celebration dance in the middle of the isle. To my right were Howie Long and Lyle Alzado.
“Looks like the kid has your number today Todd,” Long said. “He isn’t leaving until I get even,” Christensen replied.
Admittedly, Christensen did get even before we landed a couple of hours later, but he didn’t call me “Lame” as much after that.
When Oakland beat San Diego in the AFC Championship game in the 1980-81 season, Christensen danced to the song “Celebration” from he time he entered the San Diego airport until he reached the gate. He had the team in stitches. It was a sight to see.
After the team left for Los Angeles, I didn’t have any contact with Todd other than a couple of emails.
The next time I saw him was at the Special Olympics games at UCLA. My first wife and I had adopted a special-needs child. We were walking across the quad near Pauley Pavilion when I heard “Hey Lame”. Not once, but twice. I looked up and there was Todd. He took great delight in telling my now ex-wife how I got the nickname.
I kind of lost contact with Todd even though I had his email info. A few years ago, I saw Todd in Las Vegas. I was there for a UNLV-Nevada game. I saw earlier in the week that he was going to do color commentary for the game, so I decided to get there early.
He was talking, but when he noticed me standing in the doorway to the booth, he came over and gave me a hug, and at the same time, chided me for not staying in touch. Sadly, that was the last time I ever saw him.
Todd, you were one of the great ones. On and off the field.