In this edition of 100 Days, 100 Detroit Lions, we honor the greatest safety – and one of the biggest defensive and special teams’ playmakers – in NFL history.
6. Jack Christiansen
Defensive Back. 1951-58 Detroit
Many of you younger Lion fans may have never heard of Jack Christiansen before. Don’t feel bad, many of today’s NFL “experts” wouldn’t likely know of him either. However, those who saw him, played with him, or against him, never forgot him. Jack Christiansen was quite simply a man who forever changed the way the game was played. The 6-foot-1, 185 pounder was a unheralded sixth-round draft choice for the Lions out of Colorado A&M (now Colorado State) in 1951. He was a two-sport star in college (football and track-and-field). The Lion brass felt that Jack had the talent for professional football, but because of his lack of size, they also felt he would be immediately put at a disadvantage as a full-time NFL ball carrier. It was then that Lion head-coach Buddy Parker made a decision that would come to revolutionize the way NFL teams built their defenses.
During the early 1950’s, most NFL coaches chose to put their most talented backs on offense. Many of them, like the New York Giants’ Frank Gifford, played on both sides of the ball. In the Detroit Lions camp of 1951, rookie-skipper Buddy Parker’s first order of business was to shore up his pass defense. In 1950, the Lions had given up twenty-one or more points in 7 of their 12 games, including a team record 65 points against the high-flying Los Angeles Rams. Knowing that Jack was undersized for offense, he moved him to defensive-safety full-time. It was maybe the best coaching decision Parker ever made.
Christiansen was fast, smart, and a tremendous hitter. Most importantly, he was a playmaker. Joe Schmidt, Christiansen’s Hall of Fame teammate, recently described Jack to this author in these loving terms: “he could run like hell, come up and knock the shit out of ya’.” Because of Christiansen, Buddy Parker expanded on his theory of putting his best backs on defense. As a result, Christiansen would become the leader of the NFL’s most famous and feared secondary. Upon teaming with cornerback Jim David and safety Yale Lary in 1952, the group would soon become known as “Chris’s Crew” in honor of Christiansen. That same year Chris’s Crew would help the Lions win their first championship in 17 years with the stingiest defense in the league, allowing an average of only 16 points per game. Jack, Jim, Yale, and the rest of the Crew would intercept a total of 205 passes from 1951 thru 1958. Christiansen accounted for 46 of them himself, including league leading seasons of 12 (1952), and 10 (1957), respectively. The unit’s ball-hawking, hitting and big plays were a major reason why the Lions won three championships during the decade.
However, Christiansen’s biggest impact on the NFL came from his dominance on special teams. Before Jack’s emergence, NFL punt coverage teams would usually line up in tight formations to help with blocking. Jack’s speed, daring and vision changed all that. Twice during his career, he returned two punts for touchdowns in a single-game. The most remarkable thing about the feat however, was that Jack did it both times during his rookie season. He averaged an astonishing 19.1, and 21.5 yards, respectively, on punt returns during his first two-seasons. Because of his exploits, NFL teams created the spread-punt formations that remain today’s standard. Christiansen returned a total of eight punts for touchdowns during his career, which until recent years, stood as the NFL record. His 11 return touchdowns (8 punts, 3 interceptions) tie him with Lem Barney for most in Lions’ history. His career punt return average (minimum 75 returns) of 12.75 yards, still places him third on the NFL’s all-time list.
During his career, Christiansen was named all-pro six-consecutive years (1952-57), and went to five-straight Pro Bowls (1953-57). In 1972, Football Digest named him one of the top 25 players ever to play in the NFL. Jack Christiansen is a true NFL legend, not only of his time, but for all-time.