SALT LAKE CITY — By any standard, Todd Christensen had a great football career. He played on two Super Bowl championship teams and set NFL records. He was selected to play in five Pro Bowls and voted to four first-team All-NFL teams. And yet, long after his playing career was finished, he confided to his son Toby that there was one more football accomplishment he wanted.
“He told me he wanted to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame,” says Toby. “It meant a lot to him.”
Remarkably, 30 years after he retired from the game (and five years after he passed away at the age of 57), he still is not in the Hall of Fame.
It makes no sense.
Study the graphic that accompanies this story. There are eight tight ends in the Hall. Christensen’s stats match or exceed all of them except the outlier, Shannon Sharpe, who was actually used as a wide receiver and benefitted greatly from rule changes that favor receivers.
Christensen has more receptions and more receiving yards than half of them. He has more touchdown receptions than three of them. He played in as many Pro Bowls as any of them except Sharpe. He won more Super Bowls than all but Sharpe. He is in a three-way tie for most 1,000-yard seasons.
He led the NFL in receiving twice and set records for his position. He was the first tight end to catch 90 passes in a season and he did it twice. He had at least 80 catches for four consecutive years.
“The NFL has shifted to a passing league, so it’s not fair to compare numbers,” says Toby. “He was groundbreaking. Now people look at the numbers and say, ‘That was a record?’ Slot receivers are catching 110 passes. But it’s a different era.”
Christensen’s pro career was slow to develop, or his numbers would be off the charts. A running back at BYU, he was drafted in 1978 by the Dallas Cowboys in the second round. He broke his foot near the end of training camp and was placed on injured reserve for the entire season. The Cowboys converted him to tight end the next season, but after a week of playing the new position he balked at the change and the team cut him.
The Giants signed him and then cut him after one game. He was given tryouts by the Packers, Patriots, Eagles and Bears but wasn’t offered a contract. The Raiders signed him in 1979 as a third-string tight end, and he kept a roster spot with his special teams play and long-snapping ability. In 1982, his career took off. He caught 42 passes in a season that was shortened by a player strike.
During the next four seasons, from 1983-86, he was the most prolific tight end in history, catching 349 passes for 4,394 yards and 33 touchdowns. In 1983 he had what is perhaps the best season by a tight end ever, catching a then-record 92 passes for 1,247 yards and 12 touchdowns, and the Raiders won the Super Bowl.
In 1986 he had 95 catches, 1,153 yards and eight touchdowns. It was the second most receptions in a single season by any receiver (Johnny Morris caught 93 for the Bears in 1964) and the most ever by a tight end. Christensen and Kellen Winslow are still the only tight ends to lead the league in receiving, and each did it twice.
To put it in perspective, consider this: Christensen played very little offense his first four years in the league. He missed his rookie season with an injury. He played special teams the next three seasons. He didn’t become the starting tight end until 1982 — five seasons after graduating from BYU — and that year he lost five games to the player strike.
He lost two more games to another strike in 1987, when he caught 47 passes. He missed almost half of his final season in 1988 because of an injury. The bottom line: Of the 137 games in which he played, he started only 90 of them at tight end — the equivalent of about 5½ seasons. Yet he produced comparable numbers to the Hall of Famers.
This should make his career totals that much more impressive, but Toby believes it is used against him.
“You can’t argue my father’s numbers, but one of the knocks on him is that he has a limited body of work,” he explains. “But (the induction of) Terrell Davis makes my father a no-brainer.” Davis, a Broncos running back, played only four full seasons and parts of three others because of injuries — a mere 78 games total — from 1995 to 2001 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2017.
Toby believes there’s also another reason for his father’s exclusion, one that has been reported in the media: The wanderlust of the Raiders. When Christensen began playing for the Raiders, they were based in Oakland, but in his fourth season they moved to Los Angeles. They returned to Oakland in 1995. They plan to move to Las Vegas in 2019 or 2020. Toby believes this has undermined the support of local media, who play a role in lobbying for players to be nominated for the Hall of Fame.
“(To get in the Hall) you need to have sports writers on your side,” says Toby. “The feeling is that when the Raiders left L.A., the media turned their backs on them.”
Raider greats such as cornerback Lester Hayes, safety Jack Tatum and receiver Cliff Branch are not in the Hall of Fame. Neither is Tom Flores, who won Super Bowls as a player, assistant coach and head coach (he won two as head coach of the Raiders). Quarterback Ken Stabler wasn’t inducted until 2016, 32 years after he retired and a year after he died, and all he did was win a Super Bowl, win the league MVP award, and earn a place on two first-team All-Pro teams.
There have been other forgotten players from other teams who have received late invitations to the Hall. Jerry Kramer, the legendary Packers guard who paved the way for Bart Starr’s famous quarterback sneak in the Ice Bowl, was inducted this year, 50 years after his retirement.
“He got in because a lot of media wrote in for his cause,” says Toby. “They’re not doing that for the Raiders. The Oakland media doesn’t care because they’re leaving again.”
In 2009, Bleacher Report posted a story titled, “Proof that Todd Christensen, Raiders Tight End, Deserves Hall of Fame Membership.” Writer Matt Smith wrote that Christensen seems to have been forgotten. “If you compare former Oakland/Los Angeles Raider Todd Christensen’s stats to the tight ends that are in the Hall of Fame,” he continues, “his numbers are as good as, and often better than, the inducted ones. Christensen was on two Super Bowl teams, he was the second TE ever to lead the league in total receptions (Kellen Winslow was first), and he was the first TE to ever have two seasons of 90 catches.”
There’s an online petition to put Christensen in the Hall, produced by his son Teren. Jef Taylor, the self-styled NFL historian and “Chancellor of Football” who lobbied for Kramer’s induction, posted a story this year to promote the late induction of several deserving former players, Christensen among them.
“How did we forget Christensen?” Taylor writes. “He deserves to be enshrined in Canton.” Taylor is among those who believe the Raiders’ moves derailed the chance for Christensen and other Raiders to be invited to the Hall. “Those Los Angeles sportswriters didn’t honor the team and campaign for those players once the team went back north,” he writes.
As if to further drive home Christensen’s case for the Hall, in 2015 FootballPerspective.com decided to research the best season ever produced by an NFL tight end by using fantasy football scoring. The research included players from the pre-fantasy football era. Todd Christensen’s performance in 1983 ranked No. 1, with 159.8 points, followed in order by Rob Gronkowski (158.8 in 2011), Kellen Winslow (147.4 in 1982), Pete Retzlaff, Tony Gonzalez, Jackie Smith, Mike Ditka and Jimmy Graham. And, as writer Chase Stuart notes, Christensen did not have the advantage of playing in the pass era. Gronkowski’s Patriots threw 619 passes in 2011; Christensen’s Raiders threw 504 in 1983.
Why is Todd Christensen not in the Hall of Fame?