Budding track star Jack Christiansen hung up his track shoes in favor of his gridiron cleats.
Christiansen eventually became an All-Skyline Conference safety and punt return specialist for Bob Davis’ Colorado A&M Aggies (now known as the Colorado State Rams).
Christiansen then became a member of Detroit’s notorious “Chris Crew,” a stingy defense that put the clamps on the opposition week in and week out.
He was also a five-time Pro Bowl and six-time First-Team All-Pro safety and special teamer with the Lions.
Behind Christiansen’s exploits on defense and special teams, the Lions won three NFL championships in the 1950s.
He led the league in interceptions twice and became the first player to score two punt returns for touchdowns in the same game.
After Christiansen retired from pro football in 1959, he became a successful coach.
He eventually became a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1970.
Not bad for a former track star whom many naysayers thought was too small for the gridiron.
John LeRoy “Jack” Christiansen was born in Sublette, KS on December 20, 1928.
Christiansen, his mother, and his younger sister Janice moved in with his grandparents in Wray, CO after his father died when he was a youngster, per the Cañon City Daily Record’s Brooke Johnson.
Their mother remarried and moved to Michigan.
Dec. 20, 1928 — Hall of Fame defensive back Jack Christiansen is born in Sublette, Kan. He recorded 46 interceptions and helped the Detroit Lions to 3 NFL titles in his 8 seasons. #KSfootballhistory pic.twitter.com/5DiNIgvDAe
— Kansas Sports Chronicles (@ks_chronicles) December 20, 2021
Jack Christiansen’s grandfather was a member of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF). Members’ families were allowed to stay in IOOF homes.
He decided that moving nine-year-old Jack and seven-year-old Janice to an IOOF home in Cañon City, CO was best for them.
Jack Christiansen attended Cañon City High School several years later.
He was a two-sport star who excelled in football and basketball for the Cañon City Tigers. He played for Tigers head football coach Gordon Bug.
Little did Christiansen know a harmless prank would change his life forever.
Sixteen-year-old Jack Christiansen and his friends moved a bicycle rack from Main Street to the middle of Sixth Street in the fall of 1945.
Thinking they got away with their prank, the boys headed east down Main Street.
However, Cañon City police chief Raymond Riede saw them from a distance. He yelled at them to stop. However, they took off running along Main Street.
Riede fired a warning shot into the ground that somehow ricocheted off the pavement and into Christianesn’s left arm.
According to Johnson, Riede’s warning shot shattered bones above Christiansen’s left elbow.
Worse, the shot also shattered his radial nerve. It required several surgeries.
The sobering turn of events ended Jack Christiansen’s high school athletics career.
Despite the harrowing misfortune, Christiansen became Head Boy of Cañon City High School’s Class of 1946.
The sports world hadn’t seen the last of Jack Christiansen. In fact, he would come back with a vengeance in the next phases of his gridiron journey.
College Days With The Colorado A&M Aggies
Jack Christiansen attended Colorado A&M University (currently known as Colorado State University) from 1947 to 1950.
Christiansen had strong academic credentials after he graduated from Cañon City High School in 1946.
The Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) shouldered his tuition fees at Colorado A&M, per Johnson.
When Jack Christiansen’s college career began, he wasn’t in football shape.
Christiansen, who was a quarterback during his high school days, only had 75 percent mobility in his arm entering his true freshman year at Colorado A&M.
Not to be denied, he tried out for the Rams’ track and field squad.
Jack Christiansen promptly exceeded everyone’s expectations and blew the competition out of the water.
He set a new school record with a time of 47.6 seconds in the 440-yard dash. It stood for the next twenty years.
Christiansen also won the Skyline Conference quarter-mile track title three times.
At that point in his life, Christiansen thought he was destined to become a track star. He thought his 6’1″, 162-lb. frame was too small for the college gridiron.
However, fate had other plans for him.
Some of his peers convinced him to try out for the Colorado A&M Aggies (which later became the Colorado State Rams) football team.
Christiansen eventually relented and then the rest was history.
— Lance Krisl (@bvp4mvp) December 25, 2015
He not only made the Aggies football team, but he also started in his first game as a sophomore on November 20, 1948, after the starting safety was sidelined with an injury.
Jack Christiansen promptly started his college football career in spectacular fashion.
He scored on an 89-yard punt return for a touchdown against the Aggies’ in-state rivals, the Colorado Buffaloes.
Christiansen starred at safety and special teams for Aggies head football coach Robert “Bob” Davis for the next three seasons.
The Aggies won eight games in 1948 and played in the 1949 Raisin Bowl – the first bowl game in the school’s football history.
Unfortunately, the Aggies lost to the Occidental College Tigers in heartbreaking fashion 21-20 before a crowd of ten thousand fans at Ratcliffe Stadium.
Although the Aggies averaged eight wins the next two seasons, they never made it to another bowl game during that time frame.
Nonetheless, Jack Christiansen’s star continued shining brightly.
He earned All-Skyline Conference honors twice during his college football career with the Aggies. He also earned a combined eight varsity letters in football, track, and baseball.
Christiansen earned his bachelor’s degree from Colorado A&M in 1951.
He made a seamless transition into professional football that same year.
Jack Christiansen would emerge as one of the best punt return specialists and pass defenders in Detroit Lions franchise history.
Pro Football Career
The Detroit Lions made Jack Christiansen the 69th overall selection of the 1951 NFL Draft.
Prior to that, many NFL teams were apprehensive about drafting Christiansen because of his small stature.
However, former Detroit Lions quarterback and general manager Dutch Clark convinced the team to take a chance on Christiansen, per the Cañon City Daily Record.
The Detroit Lions weren’t a very good defensive team prior to Jack Christiansen’s arrival.
When they rolled the dice on Jack Christiansen in the spring of 1951, they changed their defensive tenacity overnight.
Christiansen led Detroit’s notorious “Chris Crew” – the Lions’ secondary that also featured Jim Smith, Clarence Self, and Dome Dibble that terrorized NFL passing games in the 1950s.
Christiansen told the Professional Football Researchers Association’s (PFRA) Stan Grosshandler that in 1986 the Lions employed a Giant Umbrella or Eagle Seven-Man Line defense under head coach Buddy Parker.
Parker witnessed how Christiansen ran the Lions’ defense like a well-oiled machine.
“He ran it and he was the boss,” Parker said (via VintageDetroit.com’s Richard Bak).
OTD 1951: In his third professional game, #Lions rookie safety Jack Christiansen becomes the first player in NFL history to return two punts for touchdowns in the same game, a 27-21 loss to the Rams at #Detroit's Briggs Stadium.
He would duplicate the feat 6 weeks later. pic.twitter.com/qWtdFAu4WF
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) October 15, 2020
Jack Christiansen enjoyed a rousing start to his pro football career.
He scored on two punt returns for touchdowns against the Los Angeles Rams in the early going of the 1951 NFL season.
Christiansen’s returned punts for 69 yards and 47 yards against the Rams.
He became the first player in league history to score two punt returns for touchdowns in the same game.
Christiansen pulled off the feat long before Chicago Bears punt and kick return specialist Devin Hester tormented the opposition in 2006 and beyond.
It was a throwback to his first start in college football some three years earlier.
As a sophomore punt return specialist for the then-Colorado A&M Aggies, Christiansen scored on an 89-yard punt return for a touchdown against the Colorado Buffaloes.
When Christiansen took his act to the pro ranks, he burned the opposition.
Several weeks after the game against the Rams, Christiansen torched the Green Bay Packers with punt returns for touchdowns of 71 and 89 yards on Thanksgiving Day.
The two scores ramped up Christiansen’s punt returns for touchdowns total to four in his rookie season.
Despite Jack Christiansen’s hot start to his NFL career, the 7-4-1 Lions missed the postseason for the sixteenth straight year.
That all changed in the next several years.
Future Hall of Famer Yale Lary joined the Chris Crew and helped the 9-3 Lions secure their second NFL championship in 1952.
They beat Otto Graham’s Cleveland Browns in the title game, 17-7.
A ballhawk for the @Lions in the ‘50s.
Jack Christiansen was always looking to take it to the house.
— NFL (@NFL) December 7, 2019
For his part, Christiansen earned the first of his six consecutive First-Team All-Pro nods following the 1952 NFL campaign.
Christiansen made a crucial position switch the following year that solidified his status as one of the elite pass defenders in the NFL.
He moved to the left safety position in 1953. He remained there until he retired from pro football following the 1958 NFL season.
The switch also helped Jack Christiansen to enter the Pro Football Hall of a Fame as a free safety some seventeen years later.
Christiansen told Grosshandler that he typically covered the tight end because the Lions employed a man-to-man defense roughly 80 percent of the time.
Detroit played either a zone or strong-side zone defense the rest of the time.
With a rejuvenated Jack Christiansen playing the left safety position, his twelve interceptions led the National Football League in 1953.
He had a combined four interceptions in 1951 and 1952 when he played the right safety position. He averaged eight interceptions per season over the next five years with the Lions.
Christiansen also earned the first of his five straight Pro Bowl appearances in 1953.
With Christiansen leading the charge, Detroit won ten games and its second straight NFL championship that year.
The Lions won nine games in 1954 but lost to the Cleveland Browns in embarrassing fashion in the NFL Championship Game, 56-10.
Detroit averaged just six wins in the next two seasons. Consequently, the Lions failed to contend for the postseason during that stretch.
Behind Jack Christiansen’s league-leading ten interceptions, Detroit won its fourth NFL championship in 1957.
The Lions floundered to a 4-7-1 mark a year later.
Jack Christiansen retired from the National Football League following the 1958 season.
He finished his eight-year pro football career with 46 interceptions, seven fumble recoveries, and three defensive touchdowns.
Christiansen’s career interception total is remarkable considering NFL teams played just twelve games per season in the 1950s.
As a special teamer with the Lions, Christiansen had 1.084 punt return yards and eight punt returns for touchdowns. He averaged 12.8 yards per punt return in 89 career games.
Christiansen’s and Lem Barney’s 11 return touchdowns still stand as a Detroit Lions franchise record.
Jack Christiansen had a secret tactic for throwing receivers off their game back in the day.
“I can remember picking up a handful of snow or mud and throwing it in the receiver’s eyes,” Christiansen said (via VintageDetroit.com). “They’d holler and bitch, but we’d get away with it.”
He also pointed out that today’s players can’t resort to that tactic since it’s impossible to sling a handful of AstroTurf at a receiver’s eyes.
Post-Football Life And Death
Jack Christiansen and his wife Doris have four daughters.
He embarked on a successful twenty-four-year football coaching career after he played his final down in the NFL in 1958.
He coached the San Francisco 49ers’ defensive backfield from 1959 to 1963.
The 49ers promoted him to their head coaching position in 1963.
— 49ers Museum (@49ersMuseum) December 20, 2016
San Francisco averaged six wins per year when Christiansen called the shots until the 1967 NFL season.
The Colorado Sports Hall of Fame inducted Jack Christiansen during his fifth year as 49ers head coach in 1967.
Regrettably, the 49ers never tasted postseason football during Christiansen’s five-year head coaching tenure in the Bay Area.
San Francisco fired Christiansen after a dismal 2-12 win-loss campaign in 1967.
He returned to his alma mater Colorado State where he served as a consultant for Rams athletics a month later.
That stint didn’t last long, however.
Christiansen flew back to the Bay Area where he became the Stanford Indian assistant coach under John Ralston in April 1968.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrined Jack Christiansen in the summer of 1970. Other members of the Class of 1970 were Tom Fears, Pete Phos, and Hugh McElhenny.
“It is a real honor for me and to be here to be inducted into the Hall of Fame now along with these other three people that are up here,” Christiansen said in his Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement speech.
Christiansen eventually took over as the Stanford Cardinals head football coach prior to the 1972 NCAA season.
The program settled on “Cardinals” after it dropped the previous “Indian” nickname.
“I thought they would come up with something better, but ‘Thunder Chickens’ isn’t that bad an idea,” Christiansen quipped. “Look at some other suggestions: ‘Pinkos,’ ‘Cockroaches,’ and ‘Warmongers.'”
Stanford’s sports teams eventually carried the singular “Cardinal” nickname in the fall of 1981.
Although the Cardinals never appeared in a bowl game during Christiansen’s tenure, he led the program to five consecutive winning seasons.
At the time, only Christiansen and Pop Warner earned that distinction.
The USC-Stanford rivalry reached fever pitch levels at that time.
USC Trojans head football coach John McKay blasted the Stanford program for showing no class during the 1972 NCAA season. He even wanted to beat the Cardinals by two thousand points.
For his part, Christiansen’s car license plates read “ZAP USC” when he reported for spring practice the year after.
It seemed McKay and Christiansen reached a truce several months later.
Christiansen once played golf with McKay after attending an awards banquet at Stanford.
During Jack Christiansen’s time at Stanford, he helped mold two All-American quarterbacks – Jim Plunkett and Mike Boryla.
The Cardinals were one of the country’s leaders in passing offense during Christiansen’s eight-year tenure at Stanford.
The answer to yesterday’s trivia is Jack Christiansen. He had been HC with the 49ers and went to Stanford as an asset coach in 1968. He was a prime candidate for the CSU job in ‘70 but AD Perry Moore hired Notre Dame DC Jerry Wampfler, who went 8-25 over 3 years. @CSUFootball pic.twitter.com/kit6mLywQM
— Aggies To Rams (@AggiesToRams) December 11, 2019
The Kansas City Chiefs hired Jack Christiansen to become their running backs coach in 1977.
The Chiefs had a terrible 2-12 win-loss record that year. They missed the postseason for the sixth straight time.
Consequently, the team fired head coach Paul Wiggin following the 1977 NFL season.
For Jack Christiansen, the coaching merry-go-round was all too familiar by this time – he had been in the football coaching ranks for almost nineteen years.
According to Sports Illustrated’s Ron Reid, Christiansen left his Kansas City apartment after Wiggin’s firing and returned to the family home in Palo Alto, CA.
Christiansen and his family had resided in Northern California since he became the San Francisco 49ers’ defensive backfield coach in 1959.
Christiansen told Reid that coaching changes were more common in the late 1970s because the number of teams had increased to twenty-eight. The owners also weren’t as patient as before.
He also told his wife Doris that firings were a common occurrence in the NFL coaching community.
“When you get fired, a lot of times it’s more disappointing to your wife than to you,” Christiansen told Sports Illustrated in 1978.
Christiansen offered some advice to Wiggin: he should focus more on his accomplishments than his disappointments.
After Christiansen left Kansas City, he became the Seattle Seahawks’ defensive backfield coach from 1978 to 1982.
He finished his twenty-four-year football coaching career as the Atlanta Falcons’ secondary coach in the 1983 NFL season.
Christiansen became a member of the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame in 1986.
He joined the Colorado State Athletics Hall of Fame two years later. He’s also a member of Colorado State football’s All-Century Team.
Jack Christiansen, one of the best punt return specialists and pass defenders in Detroit Lions franchise history, passed away on June 29, 1986.
According to Johnson, the 57-year-old Christiansen died three years after his initial prostate cancer diagnosis.
Colorado State University unveiled the Jack Christian Memorial Track in his honor in 1989.
Christiansen is also a member of the NFL 100th Anniversary Team, NFL 1950s All-Decade Team, the Pride of the Lions, and the Detroit Lions All-Time Team.