One day in retirement, Cleveland Browns end Mac Speedie was asked about Jack Christiansen, the Detroit Lions’ Hall of Fame defensive back of the 1950s. “We had a standard rule when we played Detroit,” Speedie said. “Don’t throw in his area and don’t punt to him.”
Sound advice. Few people could hurt you in so many ways as Christiansen, who grew up in a Colorado orphanage and starred at Colorado A&M before being drafted by Detroit in 1951. The vocal leader of “Chris’s Crew,” as the Lions’ famed secondary of the Eisenhower decade was called, Christiansen picked off 46 passes in 89 games, one of the highest interception-to-game ratios in league history. He twice led the NFL in picks: 12 in 1953 and 10 in 1957, impressive numbers for a 12-game season. He hauled back punts for scores so frequently–six in his first two seasons, including a still-standing record four as a rookie–that opponents devised the now-familiar spread formation to keep him corralled. In a pinch, the all-purpose back could fill in on offense. He didn’t carry the ball often, but he averaged 7.5 yards per attempt when he did. Subbing for the injured Bob Hoernschemeyer at the end of the 1952 season, he reeled off 18- and 65-yard TD dashes in consecutive games while also playing safety.
At 6-1 and 162 pounds, Christiansen wasn’t big, but he was smart, crafty, and fearless. Coach Buddy Parker credited him with helping to develop the team’s overall defense during the 1950s. “He ran it and he was the boss,” Parker said. With Christiansen as one of the team’s key leaders, the Lions won four divisional championships and three NFL titles during his eight seasons. He was selected All-Pro six of those seasons.
Christiansen retired after the 1958 season and joined San Francisco’s staff as an assistant. He took over the head coaching job when Red Hickey was fired a couple of weeks into the 1963 season. Ironically, Christiansen’s debut as a head coach came against Detroit, with the 49ers being done in by a new Lion practicing Christiansen’s old specialty. That afternoon at Tiger Stadium, Tommy Watkins broke Christiansen’s NFL single-game record of 175 punt return yards with 184 yards on five returns. Watkins’ total included a 90-yard TD, which eclipsed Christiansen’s team-record 89-yard scamper against Green Bay a dozen years earlier.
After being fired by the 49ers in 1967, Christiansen moved on to several other collegiate and NFL coaching gigs, including a head coaching stint at Stanford University. He was fired at Stanford in 1976 and replaced by an up-and-comer named Bill Walsh.
Christiansen was elected to the NFL Hall of Fame in 1970 and ever since has been consistently included in any ranking of the top 100 pro players of all-time.
In recalling the Lions’ golden era a few years before his death from lung cancer in 1986, Christiansen described the elemental difference between the game as played in the elements at Briggs Stadium and the modern indoor version. “I can remember picking up a handful of snow, or mud, and throwing it in the receiver’s eyes,” he said. “They’d holler and bitch, but we’d get away with it. You can’t do that today. For one thing, you can’t pick up a handful of AstroTurf.”