No Wonder His Spot Is at End of Line

Jim Murray

September 16, 1988|Jim Murray

"We won ugly," said Todd Christensen after the Raiders had pushed the San Diego Chargers out of the way, barely, in their opener, 24-13. "If the White Sox can do it, we can do it."

Winning ugly is Todd Christensen's specialty. Other guys run those touchdown routes that seem to be right out of Swan Lake or choreographed by Busby Berkeley. Other guys have the pure grace of leopards leaping through snow. Todd looks more like a guy off-loading a sack of mail from a slow freight.

Todd Christensen never caught a pass in his life that he didn't have more people hanging on him than a Cairo streetcar. He looks like he's leaking people when he goes over a goal line. Most of the time, his aren't the only hands on the football. Some of his receptions are more like interceptions.

When they draw all those lovely pass patterns on the team blackboard, Todd's never in them. Those are for all those nifty, spindly-legged little sprinters, the chorus boys of football. They're the ones in the Monday morning photos and highlight films. They're the stars of the melodrama.

Todd just kind of plays their sidekick, or the guard at the gang hide-out who gets to say, "You want I should pinch his head off, Boss?"

Tight ends are kind of the plumbers of football. Unnoticed until needed. It's not one of the glamour positions of football. It's not really a position at all, it's a penance. To paraphrase Dan Jenkins, if it were a movie, the tight end wouldn't get the girl; the tight end would get the nosebleed.

He never catches the ball except in a crowd. He rarely catches the ball except over the middle, that no-man's land of football, Dracula's Castle, where the doctors go to say, "What's your name, son?" and, "How many fingers have I got up?" after almost every play.

It's Todd Christensen's office. Or his mine shaft. He should at least get a pick and shovel and carry a canary in his hat when he goes down in this pit.

Usually, the first thing he has to do is block some linebacker who outweighs him by 20 or 30 pounds. Then, he gets roughed up by some homicidal cornerback, some guy who should be working the Souk in Algeria or a sailor's bar in Port Said. They say the position of tight end wasn't really invented, some coach just got the idea watching a longshoremen's strike once. Or maybe it was the attack on Paris.

Christensen brings--to say the least--a whimsical attitude to the position. The last thing Todd took seriously was the Johnstown flood.

He didn't set out to be a tight end. \o7 Nobody \f7 sets out to be a tight end. Todd had this quaint notion he was a running back. He thought he was Marcus Allen. The coaches thought he ran more to Gracie. The notion of getting the ball to Christensen \o7 behind \f7 the line of scrimmage struck most of them as just better than falling on the ball. All right, if you had the lead and only a minute to go. They had a better idea.

"How about if you just knock some people down and, if nobody else is open, we'll see about getting the ball to you?" they suggested.

Todd wasn't keen on the idea. Until he had been cut by both the New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys. Then, tight end began to look good to him. In fact, doorman at a tea room might have looked good. Or even the French Foreign Legion. Tight end was the next best thing.

You're never the primary receiver when you're a tight end. You're an afterthought. You kind of get the ball the way the lookout in the bank stickup gets it when the robbers hear the cops coming and say, "Here, kid! Take this! And good luck!"

The position evolved some years ago when the pros drafted Leon Hart of Notre Dame. Leon was the answer to what would happen if you put wheels on the Washington Monument. He could run just faster than he could walk but he was harder to bring down than the Ayatollah Khomeini. He could have scored carrying a load of coal.

He inspired coaches to sign up these vehicular types, guys who were too slow to be running backs, but too fast to be down linemen and too strong not to play at all.

Christensen is not prepared to accept the hod-carrier aspects of the position. "We are," he says with a twinkle, "the Renaissance men of football."

The Baltimore Colts polished the position with the durable, rock-solid John Mackey, who could catch the ball during a mine cave-in and who gave John Unitas just what the league didn't need, another guy to find in the open.

But it was the Raiders who really showcased the position. The Raiders were a team historically addicted to the long bomb, coast-to-coast touchdown passes that left them vulnerable to stacked defenses. The tight end became a kind of rest stop in this long-distance attack. The Raiders scoured campuses and waiver lists and came up with two of the best. Raymond Chester and Dave Casper were state of the art.

As is Christensen, who is as good as anybody who ever played it. Big enough to hunt grizzly at 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, sure-handed enough to play center field and slick enough to deal aces, Christensen has caught more than 90 passes a season twice. Three times he has caught passes for more than 1,000 yards in a season.

If you want pretty, throw it to the hare corps. If you want plenty, throw it to the guy with the lunch pail, Todd Christensen.

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