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'I CAN CATCH THE ROCK'

Aug. 10, 1987
Aug. 10, 1987

Table of Contents
Aug. 10, 1987

Mike Tyson
Cincinnati
National Championships
Showdown
The Dodgers
Lumberjacks
Flach And Seguso
Christensen
Spotlight
Point After

'I CAN CATCH THE ROCK'

WHEN L.A. RAIDER TIGHT END TODD CHRISTENSEN PUTS ON HIS PERSONAL HIGHLIGHT TAPE, IT IS EASY TO SEE HOW HE MADE 349 RECEPTIONS IN THE LAST FOUR YEARS. THE BEST CATCH OF ALL: WHEN L.A. SIGNED HIM UP

Todd Christensen's finger hits the button, and the videotape shoots forward, stopping at fourth-and-goal on the Cleveland eight-yard line as time is running out. He restarts the tape. Raider quarterback Marc Wilson drops back, buying time, looking, looking, finally hitting his tight end, Christensen, who has somehow wormed his way between two defenders. Christensen makes a diving, rolling catch, and the official throws his arms up with 29 seconds showing on the clock. A sudden silence falls over Cleveland Stadium.

This is an article from the Aug. 10, 1987 issue Original Layout

"That's what I love best—that massive crowd silence when something bad happens," Christensen says. "I've run this back a million times. It's getting fuzzy."

The date of the game was Oct. 20, 1985; the score: Raiders 21, Browns 20. Afterward Raider coach Tom Flores said, "We gave Todd the end zone and told him to get open." It's one of the gems of Christensen's personal highlight film.

"Now watch," he says, hitting the button again. "Watch the cop in the end zone. He takes off his helmet and throws it on the ground."

"Where? I didn't see it," says Christensen's eight-year-old son, Toby, the oldest of his three boys.

"Look closely," Christensen says. "See, he spikes it. There, right there."

"Oh yeah," Toby says.

"Now watch," says Christensen, shooting the tape forward. "Charger game in San Diego the same year." We see Christensen pull in the 24-yard TD pass that gave L.A. the lead with 1:49 remaining. "Here's the best part," he says. "I'm over by the wall, and a fan pours beer on me. See it?"

"No," says Toby.

"Wait, I'll slow it down," Christensen says, and we see a silvery streak cascade gently onto his head. "See, Dokie Williams turns and looks at the guy," Christensen says. "My helmet smelled of beer in the locker room."

Such little indignities are important in Christensen's collected and capsulized presentation of his career, those moments that trigger his competitive instincts. They don't like me? Good, I'll stick it to 'em. And if you don't believe it, watch the tape. It's all here. I collected it myself.

Self-centered? Yes, Christensen has been called that, more often by teammates than by opponents. Arrogant? Yes, he has been called that, too, but it's not really an accurate assessment; it's more a matter of his constantly trying to explain and assert himself than it is arrogance. Humble? No, he has never been accused of being humble, yet there is a strange streak of humility in this complex personality.

Christensen sneers at the Macho Man label that others have occasionally attached to him, and some of his favorite stories deal with the defeat of his ego: Macho Man stopped by a stewardess who won't let him carry his MVP trophy from the 1977 Blue-Gray game aboard the plane. Macho Man backed down by a little old lady on another plane after he asked her to put out her cigarette. Macho Man wandering like a gypsy through the NFL before finally catching on with the Raiders.

Raider linebacker Matt Millen recalls: "One day I said to him, 'Todd, I'm going to tell you one thing you're lacking,' and he said, 'Humility,' and I said, 'No, conformity.' "

"If you can figure Todd Christensen out," Raider defensive end Howie Long says, "give me a call, and you can come analyze me."

Christensen keeps his own records and collects his own trivia; collects trivia in general, actually. He can tell you the first time he ever sat down with his father to read a copy of Street & Smith's—it became an annual ritual back in his hometown, Eugene, Ore.—and announced that someday his picture would be in that magazine. "It was the 1965 issue. I was eight," says the 31-year-old Christensen. "Lenny Moore was on the cover. That was the year he scored 20 touchdowns."

He can tell you the records that will never be broken—"Paul Hornung, 176 points in 1960: 15 TDs, 15 field goals, 41 extra points; they won't break it because running backs don't kick anymore"—and he can tell you the records that will fall this year. He has a file of jokes compiled on index cards, for use in speaking engagements, and another file containing quotes, from Shakespeare to Dizzy Dean. You want to compete with him? Fine. Try covering him when he goes out for a pass. In the past four years he has caught more of them (349) than anyone else has over that span of time. (Of active players, next best is Art Monk, who is 32 catches short.) Don't try to match him quote for quote. You won't win. You want to do some verbal sparring with him? You'll come away bruised, because he'll match you barb for barb, each remark slicing a little deeper.

But underneath, a little voice tells him: Hold on, wait a minute, slow down, Todd. You're at the top. You've made it. Few people in the world do their jobs as well as you do. You don't need to prove yourself anymore. Why not relax?

"I wonder at that myself," Christensen says. "I guess the answer is ego. I wear my ego on my sleeve—as everyone can plainly see."

The world found out about him in January 1984, when the Raiders were getting ready to play Washington in Super Bowl XVIII. He was coming off a 92-catch season, the first year of his great four-year run. At interview sessions he handed out mimeographed copies of his poem "A Destiny to Win." He quoted Teddy Roosevelt, Walt Kelly, Gandhi. Feature writers went wild. A gen-u-ine intellectual. Quotes got garbled. He mentioned Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and it came out in one L.A. paper as Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Gibbons. What's the difference, Gibbon, Gibbons? They had their Renaissance man, at least for that week.

His teammates, meanwhile, looked on with furred eyes. Geez, that's Todd for you.

"Look," he says, "I very genuinely wanted to have my poetry published at that time. Here I've got reporters from Pig's Knuckle, Arkansas, to Point Barrow, Alaska, talking to me, and I'd be an idiot not to take advantage of it. And I did get it published, but after seeing the way it was accepted, critically, well, it was the last time I ever did that.

"I remember when we were in the Super Bowl after the '80 season. My three-year pro career up to that point had consisted of one catch—in the playoffs. We were sitting in the interview room, and each of us had his own table, and finally my roommate, Rich Martini, and I combined tables and got out the cards and played crazy eights. That's how little action we were getting. Everyone else was pontificating on the nuances of playing football. After that I decided I was going to write my book, The Anonymous Strain. So near and yet so far from the bright lights.

"I remember envisioning a situation where I'd have a great game, and I'd be holding court with the reporters, and they'd ask, 'Who are you? Where have you been?' Son of a gun, it actually did happen just like that."

Who was he indeed? The question, put to his mother, produces an oversized scrapbook with gold lettering, the first of many, all neatly annotated and chronologically arranged. "I'm the record keeper in the family," June Christensen says. "It's traditionally Mormon to keep records."

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been a guiding force in the lives of the Christensens. Todd's father, Ned, a Ph.D. and chairman of the department of audiology and speech pathology at Oregon, was a Mormon bishop for 15 years. A grandfather of June's had 8 wives and 46 children. "My father was the 45th," says June, who has a degree in elementary education and studied for another one in accounting. "Of the 46 children, 41 grew to maturity and 35 went to college. Of those, five went on for master's degrees, three for Ph.D.'s and two for M.D.'s."

Education, numbers, a fascination with historical record-keeping; the pattern was set. Even the results of board games are recorded. "This is the Scrabble record for June and myself," says Ned, producing a piece of paper. His average score from last year is 356; June's is 306. "She busted 300 in 1986," he says, "but we play a different kind of Scrabble. It's noncompetitive. We help each other, we try to set up high-scoring chances for each other."

Into this gentle, academic household came Todd Jay Christensen on Aug. 3, 1956, the second of three sons. "A good disposition and a hearty appetite came along with this boy," the scrapbook notes. At four he was given to odd and unusual observations. "When served fried chicken," June wrote, "his classic remark was, 'I want the eye.' "

A few years later he was creating a language of his own, a language he is now passing on to his own sons. The vocabulary includes "oleevos" (small olives), "meeg" (covering one's face with one's hands) and "twile" (twirling a cat's whiskers). He loved to read. His mother remembers early mornings when she would come into the laundry room and find Todd sitting there, reading and making notes in the margins. Numbers were another consuming passion.

"When he was nine, I took him on a trip with me to Portland," his father says. "Usually he was very talkative, but this time he was quiet. He was staring out the window intently. When we pulled off the highway, he got very excited. He said, 'One thousand sixty-nine—that's how many reflector markers there are.' He'd counted every one of them for the entire 120 miles."

"Terwilliger Boulevard," Christensen says. "That was the name of the exit, Terwilliger Boulevard."

His athletic career began when he was six. His nine-year-old brother, Merrill, had read about an all-comers track meet at Oregon's Hayward Field. He and Todd entered. Todd came home with a ribbon, and he was hooked. A month before his 10th birthday he had collected 69 assorted track-and-field ribbons and held two world age-group records and six meet records in everything from hurdles to shot put.

He was bigger and faster than the other kids. At Sheldon High in Eugene he collected nine letters—in football, basketball and baseball. He was a fiend about conditioning. "He never missed a workout," his mother says.

One searches for signs of the growth of his ego, the occasional sneer and conversational put-down that people point to today. His parents offer no clues—at least not to strangers. "Put-downs of any kind were not tolerated in this house," Ned says.

"He was consumed with fairness," June says. "In the pickup games in the street, if someone cheated or the sides weren't even, he would get very upset."

Maybe that was it. Maybe, when he joined the world of organized athletics, a kid's world run by adults, and he found it wasn't fair at all, something snapped, something rebelled. The gentleness he had learned at home, the respect for authority and discipline, hey, they didn't always pay off. "I became known for copping an attitude," he says.

"When we were first married," says Christensen's wife, Kathy, who met him at Brigham Young, "I met his parents, and I threw my arms around Todd and said, 'I just love your son.' His father said, 'Well, you got him when he was easy.' "

"In high school," Christensen says, "three different teams took a vote on whether to let me stay on the squad. In basketball I fouled a guy at the end of a game, and the bandleader from the other school came out of the stands and reached for my hand and said, 'Hey, Christensen, way to go.' Then he pushed me and I went after him. There was a melee. The coach made me apologize to the school.

"In baseball they had all these traditions—shine the seniors' shoes, do the push-ups. I wouldn't do any of that stuff. I became a hot dog. Before I'd go to bat, I'd do the Willie Stargell, bat between my legs. I'd shake my hair back before I put the helmet on. They had to vote to keep me on the team. I made it.

"I got mad at the football coach because he'd shifted me from defensive back to noseguard to tailback to fullback. He called me in about my attitude. He gave me the speech that's now famous among football coaches: 'Christensen, you heard the expression, There's no I in team?' Even as a 16-year-old I was a smart aleck. I was going to say, 'Let's see, there's t, there's e....' He was from the crew-cut school of ethics. I was from the new longhaired school of explain why.

"In practice some time later, I hammered a guy from the blind side. The coach deemed it a vicious hit and had the squad vote on whether to keep me. The vote was 40-2 in my favor. I thought it was a nasty thing for a coach to do to a kid."

At BYU, where he was a four-year starter as a 6'3", 220-pound running back, he had trouble with the assistant coaches. Coach La Veil Edwards smoothed things over and told Christensen to cool it. What the heck, the kid could catch. He led the Cougars in receiving for three years.

Dallas drafted him in the second round in 1978. He spent the season on injured reserve with a broken foot. The next year, they talked about switching him to tight end. He said he preferred to stay in the backfield.

"I'd been working out with the weights like crazy," Christensen says. "I'd run a 4.55 40. I felt that my best chance to make the team was as a runner. If they'd have said, 'Look, Christensen, your only chance is at tight end,' I'd have switched in a minute." The Cowboys cut him after the last exhibition game. Hey, kid, there's no I in team.

And the odyssey began. The Giants picked him up before their 1979 opener with the Eagles. His bags had been lost, so he went to the Friday promotional luncheon in Manhattan wearing jeans. "What do I remember about the Eagles game?" he says. "I remember we're getting hammered, 23-3, in the first half and I'm sitting next to Harry Carson on the bench, and he says, 'Nothing like Dallas, is it?' And I say, 'Hey, don't worry about it, man. We'll get it together.' I mean, here I am 23 years old, one of the Johnny Mann Singers, and I'm telling a veteran what's what."

Christensen got into the Eagles game for exactly one play. He ran downfield under a kickoff and got blocked by Mark Slater. "Mark Slater, Number 61, from Minot, North Dakota," Christensen says. On Tuesday he was cut. "Not helpful on special teams" was the verdict.

"The irony there," says Christensen, "is that a year later I'm special teams captain for the Super Bowl Raiders."

After that, Bill McPeak of the Patriots called. "I remember him from the old Street & Smith's" Christensen says. "Bill McPeak, end for the Steelers. [The Pats'] Horace Ivory had a knee injury, so I said, 'Do your really want me, or is it just because Ivory's hurt?' " End of conversation with the Patriots.

Next stop, Philadelphia. He weighed 234 pounds. He looked nifty running the cone drill, pro football's slalom event. He reeled off a 4.55 and a 4.6 in the 40.

"[Coach] Dick Vermeil and Carl Peterson, their personnel director, were all very upbeat," he says. "It was UCLA East, hey, hey, hey. I'd run good 40s, good cone. They're thinking, 'What's wrong with this guy? Two teams have cut him.' Vermeil said, 'Can you play special teams?' I should have given it the Slim Pickens—'Yes sir, I'm shore gonna play them special teams.' Instead I pull myself erect. 'I can do anything athletic,' I say, and I can see he doesn't like that. I can feel him thinking, 'Why did I have to run into this guy?' " Goodbye, Eagles.

"Meanwhile, back in Dallas, my son Toby's started walking at nine months—without me," Christensen says. Finally, he visited Green Bay. "I met Bart Starr in his office," he says. "It was like a young artist walking into the Louvre. All those pictures on the wall: third-and-goal on the Cowboys' one, 13 seconds left. He told me they liked me, and they'd make a decision."

They decided not to do anything, which still left Christensen without a team. He returned to Dallas in time to get a call from the Oakland Raiders. On the Friday before the fourth game of the 1979 season, he tried out for them.

"Their practice field was sub-sea level," Christensen says. "I ran a 4.7. You needed four-wheel drive to get going. I told them, 'Hey, I can run faster.' They said, 'Don't worry, we just wanted to see if you're in shape.' That was the difference." The following week they called to say he had made the team.

So Christensen became a Raider, a backup tight end. He snapped for punts. He ran down under kicks. He asked for his high school number, 44, but they gave him 46, Warren Bankston's old number. It represented special-team excellence.

"Once I heard O.J. Anderson give a dissertation on jersey numbers," Christensen says. "He said 20, 21 and 22 were speed numbers—you know the guy can run. A man's fast if he wears 32, and 38 or 39 means he's a blocker. But 46? That's a third-string fullback, a hard worker, a plodder. I think that might have been part of my early success. The defense sees a No. 46 running a route and figures, 'Slow guy—we can cover him with a linebacker.' "

Christensen's chance came in 1982, the strike year. Dave Casper had been traded, Raymond Chester had retired and Derrick Ramsey had hurt a knee. Christensen caught three passes in the first two games, but then the schedule went on hold for eight weeks. The first game after the strike was high drama. The Raiders were down 24-0 to the Chargers in the second quarter in L. A., but they came back to win 28-24. Christensen caught a pass for the first touchdown and wound up with eight catches for 83 yards.

"We were standing in the airport, just about to get on the plane back to Oakland, where we practiced," Christensen says, "and Tom Flores came up to me and said—I'll never forget it—'You've worked hard, you've waited your turn, now it's your time.' I was thinking, 'Wow, what a movie trailer.' Like Eric Roberts in King of the Gypsies—terrible movie, great trailer—'His time has come!' "

His teammates still had their doubts. How many guys go around quoting everybody's statistics, including his own? Why doesn't he ever shut up? Where's the humility?

"Ted Hendricks never liked me," Christensen says. "He used to call me Todd God. He thought I was very pious and self-righteous. I remember a game we lost to Seattle 38-36, and I'd caught 11 passes for 152 yards and three TDs. He was playing cards on the plane back, and he looked up and said, 'Well, Christensen, you played a good game today.' And I thought, 'Even the people who hate me call me Todd.' "

In camp he won the Raiders' annual air hockey tournament three times in a row, which rankled some people. "The tournament's important, but only to me," Christensen says. My partner was Mark Iwanowski, a reserve tight end. One year we played David Humm and Steve Sylvester, two extremely popular guys, in the finals. Everyone was cheering like crazy, and then when we won, there was disinterested silence. People just walked away, and the only Raider you could hear was Mark yelling, 'Yeah! We won!' "

Christensen shocked everyone with his 92 catches in '83, and followed that performance with 80, 82 and last year a remarkable 95. What made the 95 all the more amazing was that Marcus Allen was hurt for much of the season and the Raiders had no possession receiver other than Christensen, no one else to go to on third-and-eight. Christensen became an insidious type of receiver, squeezing his way into holes in the zone, battling for the ball in coverage, able to make the great catch. "A leaner," is the way Kansas City's Pro Bowl strong safety, Lloyd Burruss, describes him. "He leans on you and gets you going one way, then breaks it off. An extremely difficult guy to get a reading on."

Christensen says, "Once Al Davis and I were talking, and he says, 'Do you know what you are? You're a charger. Now, what do I mean by that?' It was like I was caught napping in the classroom. I said, 'I don't know.' He said, 'You take charge in the first 10 yards. Nobody gets you out of your pattern in those first 10.' "

Christensen became a media darling, always good for the snappy quote. He could capsulize himself in neat fashion: "My game is concentration, quickness and a little funk." A Chicago writer once asked how he came to write poetry. "Much as Edgar Allan Poe," Christensen replied. "I was sitting there taking morphine one night...."

For a year he was a host on a nationally syndicated TV variety show, On Stage America. Local talk shows sought him out, but teammates learned to be careful when they were on camera with him. "I appeared on Good Morning America with Marcus Allen once," Christensen says. "Stone Phillips was the host. He asked me whether I considered myself an athlete or an entertainer, and I'm getting philosophical about it, and Marcus is giving it the yawn and looking at his watch. Now, it was war. I had to get him back.

"I got done, and Marcus said, 'Yeah, my sentiments exactly,' only it came out sounding like 'sediments.' I said, 'Sediments? The paleontological species? Rocks?' Stone Phillips started laughing. Marcus said, 'Are you going to edit this?' Some people thought it was funny. Marcus didn't. I asked myself, 'Why did I have to do it? Why couldn't I have just let it go?'

"When we had the ring ceremony after the '84 Super Bowl, everyone wanted to say something. I was about the 43rd player out of 50 to speak. By that time it was yawn city. Instead of just saying, 'Thank you,' I tried to milk the moment. I said, 'Thank you for that introduction. It had all the scintillation and excitement of a corpse.' I didn't even get a groan out of the audience. So I tried a few more, and finally Ted Hendricks got up and said, 'Hey, Mormon, sit down.' So I sat down—to tumultuous silence.

"Kathy was dying on the way home. She said, 'What did that tell you?' I said, 'It told me I had an off night.' "

"They don't know him," Kathy says. "They don't know what he's like around the house, how loving and considerate he is, how religious. They only see one side. I don't know why he has to have the upper hand with people. Our first date in college nearly ended in disaster. He was cynical, critical. I said, 'Take me home.' When we stopped, he said, 'Look, I'm sorry. I'm not going to do this anymore.' Then he became a real person."

Maybe the source of this posturing is the memory of that day in Dallas when he was told, for the first time in his life, that he wasn't good enough, that he couldn't compete. Maybe it's the vision of that nightmare trip through the NFL, when pride took a beating and he was forced to showcase himself at every stop. Or his first three years with the Raiders, when he caught a total of eight regular-season passes and lived under the constant threat of a call to the coach's office. But somehow a spark lit his competitive fire, producing those 349 catches in four years, and it started raging out of control, turning every situation into a contest.

He wonders about it, along with everyone else. "I'm in a bowling alley," he says, "watching a guy play the video game Frogger. Now, if there's one thing I'm good at it's Frogger. Once I scored 113,430, a record at the time. So this guy runs up a pretty decent score, and he says, 'One of these days I'd like to turn it over,' and I should nod and smile, but like a jerk I say, 'I did.' Already I'm setting up a miniature competition, matching egos with a guy I never met before."

He shakes his head. It's a puzzler, all right. "Look, when people think about the Raider image, I don't come to mind," he says. "I'm not a wild guy, a renegade, a macho man. Eugene, Oregon, doesn't exactly make you a street guy. 'Hey, bro', my dad's into audiology and speech pathology. Yeah, we'll kick some butts.' I'm tough in a competitive football situation, but I'm not a tough guy. I want to win, and I'm an individual. Does that make sense?"

Perfect sense, perhaps, but on a team like the Raiders?

"When he first came to the team, I used to talk to him and try to tell him why he makes some people back off," Millen says. "He'd nod and say, 'You're right,' and next day he was the same as always. Now the attitude is, Hey, that's Todd. Let him go—as long as he can catch the way he does."

"One day," Christensen says, "when Lyle Alzado was on the team, we're sitting around zinging each other, Lyle and Howie Long and me, and I'm getting a bit carried away, a little shrill, and Lyle looks at Howie and he says in a resigned kind of way, 'But the kid can catch the rock.' I can see it in their faces: The guy's goofy and he's messing with us, but he can catch the rock.

"And I remember thinking to myself, 'I'm getting on TV shows, I'm getting paid for personal appearances, in a restaurant I get a nice table, people want to be with me—only because I can catch the rock.' "

PHOTOPETER READ MILLERChristensen has a knack for finding the hole in a zone and making the catch in heavy traffic.PHOTORICK STEWART/FOCUS WESTAn over-the-shoulder TD grab against the Chargers was one of his 82 receptions in '85.PHOTOPETER READ MILLERTodd's No. 46 signifies special-teams excellence, but his specialty now is offense.PHOTOPETER READ MILLERTodd met Kathy at Brigham Young, and they are the parents of Toby (left), Tory and T.J.PHOTOPETER READ MILLERChristensen cheers a participant in a state Special Olympics event across the finish line.PHOTOPETER READ MILLERTodd keeps his collection of jokes and quotes on index cards, which are neatly cataloged.PHOTOPETER READ MILLERNed and June have numerous scrapbooks detailing the varied exploits of their three sons.PHOTOPETER READ MILLERChristensen's contemplative side belies his reputation for being the renegade Raider.PHOTOPETER READ MILLER