Todd Christensen, who played parts of 10 seasons with the Oakland and Los Angeles Raiders and was a two-time All-Pro tight end, died Wednesday morning during surgery for a liver transplant. He was 57.
The San Jose Mercury News reported that Christensen had been battling liver disease and other ailments in recent years.
A second-round pick by the Dallas Cowboys out of BYU, where he was a star running back, Christensen played all but one game of his career for the Raiders and was moved to tight end during the Raiders’ last season in Oakland in 1981.
He evolved into a Pro Bowl-caliber player after the move to Los Angeles, catching 349 passes in a four-year span from 1983-86, for 4,394 yards and 33 touchdowns.
In his 10-year career, Christensen had 461 receptions for 5,872 yards and 41 scores. He was an All-Pro selection in 1983 and 1985 and was a five-time Pro Bowler (1983-87). He was a special teams player on Oakland’s last Super Bowl champion in 1980 and was also a member of the Raiders’ championship squad from Los Angeles in 1983.
Christensen set an NFL record for receptions by a tight end in 1983 with 92, breaking a mark set in 1980 by San Diego Chargers Hall of Famer Kellen Winslow, who had 89 catches in 1980. Christensen broke his own mark in 1986 with 95 receptions, a mark that stood until it was broken by Ben Coates of the New England Patriots, who had 96 catches in 1994.
The current record for catches by a tight end belongs to Jason Witten of the Dallas Cowboys, who had 110 last season.
Christensen tied an NFL single-season record for touchdown catches by a tight end in 1983, as well, with 12. He shared the mark with Chicago Bears Hall of Famer Mike Ditka, who caught 12 touchdown passes in 1961, and Jerry Smith of the Washington Redskins, who had 12 TD receptions in 1967. Wesley Walls of the Carolina Panthers also tied the record in 1999.
It was broken in 2004 by Antonio Gates of the Chargers in 2004, with 13 touchdowns, and tied by Vernon Davis of the San Francisco 49ers in 2009.
Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots obliterated the mark in 2011, however, when he caught 17 touchdown balls.
The late Al Davis had an inkling Christensen could make a move similar to one Davis did with another standout halfback early in his time with the Raiders, when he converted former Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon from running back to tight end in 1965.
“He turned into a tremendous tight end for us, catching the ball no matter where it was, making the big catch in crucial times,” former Raiders quarterback Jim Plunkett said. “He was tough around the goal line and he was a go-to guy for me for many years.”
The Raiders issued a statement today recognizing Christensen’s contributions to the organization.
“I am deeply saddened to hear the news about the passing of my former teammate Todd Christensen,” general manager Reggie McKenzie said. “Todd was a special player and an exemplary teammate and I cherished our time together as Raiders. The thoughts and prayers of the entire Raider family are with the Christensen family in this time of mourning.”
Former Raider coach Tom Flores had fond memories of his former star.
“Todd was an excellent football player and was prolific in the passing game,” Flores said. “He was a hybrid tight end, an H-back before it became a football term. He started out as a special teamer and was named our special teams captain right away while playing behind Raymond Chester and Dave Casper. He then helped us win Super Bowls.
“I remember Todd as always using big words and quoting famous authors and poets. He was comical at times because no one knew what he was talking about. I hadn’t seen much of him lately but miss the fun, great times we all shared as a Raider family.”
After retiring following the 1988 season, Christensen worked as an NFL analyst for NBC and later worked as a college football analyst.