Todd Christensen, a former BYU and NFL football player and television analyst, died early Wednesday from complications following surgery.
Christensen, 57, died the day he was in the process of undergoing a long-awaited liver transplant in Salt Lake City. He lived in Alpine.
“Todd was a great athlete with size and ability, but he was also very smart and came in and started for us all four years. He was a great father and we will miss him,” said former BYU coach LaVell Edwards.
“I just love that guy,” said Elder Gifford Nielsen, Christensen's former teammate and quarterback who's now a general authority for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “He was a tremendous example for all of us by his work ethic, showing us what it meant to be successful by being dependable and tough. He redefined the fullback position in college football by showing what that position could do with the pass as he helped BYU develop one of the great passing attacks in the game.”
Nielsen praised Christensen for being a leader in his home as a husband and father off the field in a game where many men lose their way.
“I’m kind of shocked. It is amazing that he is no longer with us,” said former BYU teammate and retired Provo fireman Roger Gourley, who shared a role in the Cougar backfield with Christensen in the mid-1970s.
Christensen’s death came after a long bout with liver disease. According to friends, his family rallied around him and was excited for him to have this liver transplant after a long wait on a donor list. He was undergoing a complex transplant with complications Tuesday and never regained consciousness. “Being so excited for the transplant and then to have him gone was a huge turn in fortune and emotions for the family,” said one family friend.
“I just spoke to him eight months ago,” said Gourley. “He told me he was having a tough time but was hopeful things would turn out well.”
Christensen came to BYU from Eugene, Ore., and played on BYU’s first bowl team against Oklahoma State in the 1974 Fiesta Bowl as a freshman. Before his career was over, he ranked as BYU’s No. 2 all-time receiver behind Phil Odle with 152 catches for 1,566 yards and 13 touchdowns. He was inducted into the BYU Athletic Hall of Fame in 1992.
Edwards remembers Christensen as a football player who quickly understood BYU’s complicated offense shortly after coming to Provo. “He understood how we did things on offense and he could read defenses. That’s why he started as a freshman.”
Christensen, a fullback at BYU, became a star tight end for the Oakland Raiders after being drafted in the second round of the 1977 NFL draft by the Dallas Cowboys.
"He was a great Raider," Raiders owner Mark Davis told the San Jose Mercury News, who also gathered tributes from Christensen’s Oakland Raider coach Tom Flores and quarterback Jim Plunkett. "He definitely was a unique player at that position. We'll definitely miss him," said Davis.
"He had the ability to catch the ball downfield, and (Oakland Raider) owner Al (Davis) loved that," Flores said. "So, he became a big part of our passing game and that's what made him such a threat and so valuable."
Christensen’s best football came with the Raiders. He was a big-play option on a team that had veteran tight ends Dave Casper and Raymond Chester.
With Oakland, Christensen quickly stepped into the role of a tight end and became a five-time Pro Bowl selection and was two-time All-Pro.
"You're just biding your time to get your opportunity," said Plunkett, the Raiders quarterback in the late '70s when Christensen came to the squad. "But he did make a splash. He became a go-to guy almost immediately."
Christensen possessed the size, speed and smarts to get open in the NFL.
"We always felt that if we could get him one-on-one with a linebacker, he would win the battle nine out of 10 times, which he did," Flores said.
"He turned into a tremendous tight end for us, catching the ball no matter where it was, making the big catch in crucial times," Plunkett said. "He was tough around the goal line and he was a go-to guy for me for many years.”
Christensen retired from the NFL in 1988 and worked as an NFL analyst for NBC. He later worked as a color commentator of college football for ESPN and the MountainWest Sports Network.
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.