When legendary BYU football Hall of Fame coach LaVell Edwards heard the news Wednesday morning about the death of former Cougar running back Todd Christensen, he started thinking back to the 1970s when he first got to know the young man.
The image that came to mind was of an exceptional athlete staring off into the distance while someone was talking to him.
"I can still see him out there gazing up out toward the mountains while I was talking to him," Edwards recalled. "It was like he wasn't paying attention, so it took awhile to figure that he was hearing and understanding everything. He was a little bit unique that way. He was his own guy, private in a lot of ways, yet friendly. He had a lot of good friends on the team."
Christensen, a two-time Super Bowl champion, five-time Pro Bowler and a television analyst, passed away at the age of 57 due to complications during surgery to replace his liver.
Edwards said that while it wasn't always apparent from his demeanor, Christensen — who played for BYU from 1974-77 — had an incredible ability to absorb and understand the game of football.
"He very knowledgeable about everything," Edwards said. "He not only knew his position but he knew everyone's position. He'd stand there listening as the line coach explained blocking or the quarterbacks coach would talk about the drop-back. It was like he was not paying attention, but he would hear everything and remember."
Former Cougar quarterback Gary Sheide was a senior when Christensen joined the team and he remembered a young man who believed in himself from the time he got to BYU.
“He was a cocky kid who thought he’d come in and start right away,” Sheide recalled. “He was such a great athlete. I remember being in the huddle and him saying, ‘Just give me the ball.’ I turned to him and said, ‘shut up, freshman. You’ll get the ball when you get the ball.’ Long after the fact, he would bring that up when we’d be talking and he’d say thanks for that word of advice.”
The longtime Cougar head coach said that the combination of intelligence and application perfectly complemented Christensen's physical abilities.
"He had great skill," Edwards said. "He ran the ball well and he caught the ball extremely well. He had excellent ability in all areas and those are the things that stand out."
Because of that meshing of the mental and physical aspects of the game, Edwards said Christensen was one of few players who started all four years.
"That was mainly due because a running back had to understand the passing game," Edwards said. "Things like blitz pickup are some of the hardest parts of it. You have to have the concentration to know who to pick up based on the line calls. He just picked it up about as quick as anyone I can remember. He didn't carry the ball a lot that first year, but he was valuable in the passing attack with what we were doing."
Sheide pointed to Christensen’s hands and his ability to make plays as keys to his success in Provo.
“There was a play we called 36 pass goal line,” Sheide said. “We’d fake the sweep and then he’d read the player. To this day, I tell people that I probably threw a third to half of my touchdowns on 36 pass goal line because he and running back Tim Mahoney had great hands and ran great routes coming out of the backfield.”
Sheide said Christensen had as good a hands as anyone at BYU.
“He’s catch everything that was thrown to him,” the former Cougar QB said. “He also read plays so well and knew where to sit down in a coverage.”
Christensen's final stats at BYU were pretty impressive: 152 receptions, 1,568 yards and 15 touchdowns. He also had 1,089 yards and seven scores rushing the ball. He was inducted into the BYU Hall of Fame in 1992.
After he finished his career at BYU, Christensen was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in the second round in 1978, but a broken foot limited his opportunity there. He played one game for the New York Giants, then signed with the Oakland Raiders in 1979.
Edwards said he recalled finding out that his former star had found a home at the next level.
"I read where he had gone to New York and I called one night to say congratulations," Edwards said. "I said it looks like you are pretty well set and he said, 'Coach, I'm in Oakland.' Then he added the comment: 'I finally found a team that didn't care about personality.' Todd had his own way of doing things so I laughed. He went on to have a great career there."
Christensen became a national name for his time in the NFL with the Oakland and L.A. Raiders, including helping them win the Super Bowl in 1981 and 1983. He also played in five Pro Bowl games.
He finished his pro career with 461 receptions, 5,872 yards and 41 touchdowns. He retired in 1988.
Sheide said that those numbers make a big argument that Christensen should be included in another Hall of Fame.
“You wonder why he’s not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame,” Sheide said. “You could definitely argue that he should be there.”
After injuries ended his days in the NFL, Christensen turned to broadcasting. As a football announcer, he did color commentary for ESPN, NBC Sports, the Mountain (the former MWC sports network) and CBS Sports.
He had a delivery that included an extensive vocabulary and a willingness to share his opinions. His former college coach said hearing Christensen on television always made Edwards laugh.
"That was Todd at his best," Edwards said. "When you got to know him and understand what made him say and do certain things, you could understand it. I'd listen and hear him make those comments that were off the wall, and think about how only Todd can do that and get away with that. Knowing him made me fully appreciate his abilities all the more."
In recent years, however, Christensen dealt with liver disease and other health issues. Edwards said he knew about the concerns but didn't realize how dire things were for the ex-BYU star.
"It has been a rough two years," Edwards said. "I don't know if I fully appreciated how bad or tough it was. It was a big a surprise this morning when (long-time BYU football secretary Shirley Johnson) called and told me about his passing."
Sheide also expressed his shock and remorse about hearing of the passing of a friend.
“I had no idea what was going on,” Sheide said. “I always saw him working out and he was in such great shape. I’m going to miss his friendship and I’ll never forget the memories. I wish his family the best.”
Edwards said he knows it's a tough time for the Christensen family.
"He was so young to be taken," the former Cougar coach said. "He was a big, strong, viable guy who had a lot going for him. The whole thing is tragic. I feel so badly for his family and everybody. I wish his wife and the family the best in this tough period of time. All of us have lost a family member and it's one of those tough situations."
Sheide recalled a conversation with Christensen in which the former football star expressed his overall satisfaction with his life.
“He said he’d done everything he wanted to do,” Sheide said. “He’d traveled the seven seas and been to every continent. He said he was very blessed and had no complaints. He was a good guy.”
Edwards concluded that Christensen left a solid, diverse legacy to the BYU football program and in his life.
"There's no question about it," he said. "He left a legacy from playing and being there at BYU, then compounded that by his career as an announcer calling our games. All of that added to that legacy."
Daily Herald sports editor Jared Lloyd can be reached at 801-344-2555 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He can also be followed on Twitter at @JaredrLloyd.