(Photos courtesy of Oakland Raiders)
By Ron Borges
Only one member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame ever wore number 46. Many would argue Todd Christensen should be the second.
For two years, 1950-1951, Lou “The Toe’’ Groza sported that underwhelming number before the Cleveland Browns shifted the All-Pro tackle to 76. He wore the latter so well that upon his death in 2001, every Browns’ helmet bore “76’’ on its side for the season.
Unlike 76, the number 46 is not emblazoned across the history of pro football. Chuck Muncie and Tim McDonald wore it proudly, but no one since Groza carried it to the heights Christensen did during his 10-year career with the Raiders.
Twice he led the NFL in receptions, setting a record for tight ends both times. Five times he was selected to the Pro Bowl. Perhaps more to the point, there is little that Hall-of-Fame tight end Kellen Winslow did during the 1980s that Christensen did not match despite the fact Winslow played in Don Coryell’s pass happy offense with Hall-of-Fame quarterback Dan Fouts.
Christensen never so much as played with a Pro Bowl quarterback for a single season. Had Christensen’s career not started so slowly that it made crabs look quick, there’s no telling what kind of numbers he might have put up.
Drafted by the Dallas Cowboys as a fullback in 1978, Christensen broke his foot in the final preseason game of his rookie season and spent the year on injured reserve. Asked to move to tight end the following season by Tom Landry, Christensen balked and was released. The New York Giants signed him, but he played only one game before rejecting the same idea and was again released.
Thus began his time with the Raiders. Al Davis managed to succeed where Landry and others failed, convincing Christensen his future was at tight end. He finally agreed, but it then took four years for him to master the position and become a full-time starter. In the interim, he was a key contributor on special teams, ultimately serving as the team’s long snapper until the Raiders finally realized what they had.
In 1982’s strike-shortened season he finally broke through, starting all nine games and hauling in 42 passes, It was a warning sign to the NFL of what was to come. The next year he led the league with 92 receptions, then a record for a tight end, for a career high 1,247 yards and 12 touchdowns. He would also earn the first of five consecutive trips to the Pro Bowl.
That season, Christensen would also star on the first of two Super Bowl champions while with the Raiders. The next year he proved those numbers were not a fluke. Christensen again topped 1,000 receiving yards in 1984 while making 82 receptions, and in 1985 had 80 receptions, missing a third straight 1,000-yard receiving season by only 13 yards.
Then came 1986, when he again broke the record for receptions by a tight end with 95 — joining Winslow as the only tight ends to twice lead the NFL in catches. Christensen turned them into 1,153 yards and eight touchdowns.
Injuries would haunt him his final two years in the league. He played only 12 games in 1987, his final Pro Bowl season, averaging 14.1 yards per catch on 47 receptions. In 1988, his final NFL season, he was only healthy for seven games and retired when the year was over. Yet despite spending the first three years as a special teams player and long snapper and the final two fighting injuries, Christensen put up career numbers that rivaled Winslow’s.
When Christensen retired he was fourth all-time in receptions (467) and yardage (5,872) by a tight end and fifth in touchdowns with 41. Later, Shannon Sharpe would dwarf even Ozzie Newsome’s receiving numbers for the position, but that was after the passing game had evolved and the tight end position had become what Newsome, Winslow and Christensen first made it: an offensive weapon.
Christensen was erudite as well as elusive. The son of a college professor, he loved the sound of his own voice and his mastery of the dictionary. Before the 1983 AFC championship game against the Seattle Seahawks, he volunteered a 15-verse poem he’d written in training camp that summer entitled, “A Destiny To Win.’’ When he finished reciting it, a gaggle of media applauded.
“I remember Todd as always using big words and quoting famous authors and poets,” his former coach, Tom Flores, said after Christensen’s death two years ago at 57 after a lengthy battle with liver disease. “He was comical at times because no one knew what he was talking about.’’
They may not have always known what Todd Christensen was talking about, but they always knew one thing: if you threw him a football, he’d catch it.
“He came out of nowhere to become a premier tight end in the National Football League,’’ said one of his former quarterbacks, Jim Plunkett. “He was my go-to guy in so many instances, especially around the goal line. He was a guy who could catch the ball no matter where it was thrown, and he really produced when he was playing for the Raiders, there’s no doubt about it.’’