The Unsung Hero of Troy’s 1984 National Championship: Carey Christensen

Published 11:24 am Thursday, June 29, 2023

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Many Troy University football fans cherish the 1984 and 1987 Division II National Championship teams and a number of the players from those teams have found themselves in the Troy Athletics Hall of Fame. The quarterback, Carey Christensen, that helped spark that run isn’t a name that is talked about as regularly as some of those others, however.

Christensen won the starting quarterback job heading into the 1984 season but a serious foot injury in the third game of the season made way for walk-on freshman Mike Turk to begin to etch his name in Troy history. It was a returning Christensen, though, that guided the Trojans down the field in the final seconds of the 1984 Palm Bowl to secure the school’s first national championship since 1968.

Christensen grew up in Foley and was a star quarterback in high school, leading to a scholarship to play college football at the Air Force Academy. Christensen would eventually transfer to Hines Community College in Mississippi. After finding more success at the junior college level, it was time for Christensen to find a new home.

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“The reason I ended up at Troy State was because of Chan Gailey,” Christensen flatly said. “He recruited me to Air Force and had been named head coach at Troy. I trusted Chan and that’s why I ended up at Troy.”

Christensen had played in “wish bone” style offenses for much of his career – in high school and at Air Force – which also helped considering it was the style of offense Gailey was implementing in Troy. Another bonus for Christensen was his best friend from childhood, Ed Nix, played baseball at Troy and was a part of the 1984 team that made it to the Division II World Series.

“I was only there two years but the previous year – before Coach Gailey got there – Troy had only won like two games,” Christensen said. “The real crazy thing is that not a lot changed on that team, personnel-wise. We didn’t add a bunch of transfers or anything, Coach Gailey was basically working with the same guys that had gone 2-8 the previous year.

“I think it’s a great pat on the back to Coach Gailey and his staff. They did a tremendous job molding us into national champions in two short years with basically the same team that went 2-8 and 3-7 the previous two years.”

Christensen said that he will also cherish the memories he created with his teammates during his time at Troy.

“My biggest memory is obviously winning the national championship, I don’t know that anything could top that as far as memories goes,” Christensen said. “Besides that, though, the biggest thing I cherish is my time at Troy with my friends that I played football with.

“That was a true team that cared about each other and went to work every day with each other. To this day, I still talk to my best friends from that team regularly. We had so much fun as a group, whether it was in the season or the offseason. We were always together.”

Christensen most remembers the workout sessions in Troy’s “dungeon.”

“Underneath the old Sartain Hall bleachers, there was a ‘dungeon’ down there and that’s where we worked out,” Christensen remembered. “I will tell you this, though, they worked us and worked us and worked us and we did the best with what we had and won a national championship off that work.”

Christensen was a master of the “Wish Bone” offense.

Christensen became known in the college football world for a unique hobby. Gailey told a Sports Illustrated writer about Christensen’s rattlesnake catching hobby that was printed in the 1984 College Football preview. Christensen said that he, his cousin and some friends – fueled possibly by some “liquid courage” – began catching rattlesnakes in high school. It was a hobby that followed him into college.

“You know how crazy you are at 16-17 years old,” Christensen said with a laugh. “One day in the spring, I remember it vividly, we saw a rattlesnake that had just come out of hibernation and was laying across the road and we just had to have him. All we had in the back of the truck was a PVC pipe and some rope.

“We made a big loop with the rope and it was like a snare. We caught that rattlesnake and after that we were hooked and were constantly looking for snakes.”

While Christensen said he and his friends kept their rattlesnake hunting to the winter and spring because of how active – and dangerous – the snakes were in the summer, he first got noticed for it while in junior college.

“At Hines one morning I caught two or three rattlesnakes and that’s how it really stuck with me,” he remembered. “We would sit sometimes for 20 minutes or more waiting for a snake and sometimes we would get three or four rattlesnakes out of one hole. The biggest one we ever got we took up to Opp for the Rattlesnake Rodeo. He was over six-foot and had 22 rattles and a button on him.

“We’d catch the snakes and take them back to my cousin’s house, they had all these cages, and we’d put them in the cages and drop rats or whatever in there with them.”

Heading into the 1984 season, Christensen won the starting quarterback job and was effective running Gailey’s “wish bone” offense, leading Troy to a 26-7 win over Nicholls to open the season and a 17-3 win over Florida A&M in the second game. Then, Christensen’s season hit a snag in the third game against Livingston, now known as West Alabama.

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“On the first drive of the game we faced a fourth-and-one in Livingston’s territory and I got the first down and one of the linemen was blocking a defensive tackle and the guy just lost his balance – or got blocked into me – and he landed with his knee straight down on my left foot,” Christensen remembered. “I broke my fifth metatarsal in the foot. I stayed in for the rest of the drive but I knew there was something wrong. I couldn’t hardly put any weight on it.”

Christensen was told by doctors he would miss 6-12 weeks and for the next six games freshman walk-on quarterback Mike Turk – now a Troy Hall of Famer – led the Trojans on a 5-1 run.

“Mike Turk – who is a good friend of mine – came in and did a great job for us and helped us get to the championship,” said Christensen of Turk. “He ran the offense like it needed to be run and did well. Mike and I are great friends and I love Mike Turk. He was with me at all times and was attached at my hip, even when I got hurt. We would talk about what was going on and what his keys were and this and that during that time.”

Turk said that he and Christensen’s relationship grew stronger over the year they played together.

“We had a really good relationship,” Turk said of Christensen. “Carey took me under his wing. I got there that January and he was done playing the next December. We were only teammates for a year but our relationship really grew a lot during that time.

“We roomed together on the road and he took good care of me. He was at every practice and every game constantly coaching me, which I am not only appreciative of but needed.”

As Homecoming approached Christensen started to get healthy and a decision needed to be made for the senior.

“I dressed out for the UT-Martin game on homecoming and before the game, Coach Gailey asked me if I wanted to redshirt because I could have,” he recalled. “I told him, ‘No, this is my group and we’re going to win a national championship and I’m going to be a big part of it.’ He looked at me and told me, ‘Yes, you will’ and I started playing from there.”

Christensen played just a handful of snaps against UT-Martin – completing one pass for 14 yards – but shared snaps with Turk for the rest of the season. In the season finale, Christensen completed 4-of-5 passes for 59 yards as Troy upended rival Jacksonville State heading into the playoffs. Christensen completed 45-of-80 passes on the season for 813 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions.

The Troy offense then rolled up 579 yards – including a 49-yard Christensen touchdown – in the quarterfinal win over Central State. Against Towson State, in the semifinals, Troy exploded to win 45-3 with Christensen shining. He completed 6-of-13 passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns, including a 78-yarder to Jimmie Haywood. He also rushed for 63 yards on four carries.

In the Palm Bowl, Troy was set to face No. 1-ranked North Dakota State – the reigning National Champions – in McAllen, Tex., for the Division II National Championship. Turk earned the start in the game but Christensen was the lone Trojan to find the end zone that day, scoring on a 4-yard touchdown run that capped off a 90-yard drive late in the first half.

With Troy leading 15-14 in the fourth quarter, Turk was unable to lead Troy down the field to extend the lead and North Dakota State responded by marching on a 12-play, 78-yard scoring drive that took up 5:43 of game time. The drive was capped off with a 19-yard field goal that gave NDSU a 17-15 lead.

Christensen returned to the game, with just 1:29 remaining, backed up at the Troy 14-yard line.

Ted Clem’s 50-yard field goal won the 1984 National Championship.

“I did what I did,” Christensen flatly said. “In high school, I did that three or four times my senior year, led last-minute charges down the field. It’s an usual thing for a ‘wish bone’ offense to do but I was good at that.

“I was a good runner but I think what I brought that no one else brought (to the ‘wish bone’) was that I could really throw the ball around, too. I could make every throw and that came up big on that drive. Also, my protection was really great. I played in two full games (before injury), one series against Livingston and four games at the end of the season – so over six games – and I was never sacked during that span. I never even really got close to getting sacked that I can remember.”

Christensen started the drive with a 21-yard strike to Lee Hollingsworth and then hit Greg Wall for a 12-yard pickup near midfield. After an 8-yard pass to Rufus Cox got Troy into North Dakota State territory, Elba native Ted Horstead picked up five yards for another first down to the NDSU 39.

Christensen then spiked the ball to stop the clock and found Wall for another four-yard pickup with just 29 seconds left. On third down, Christensen scrambled for four yards but Troy had no timeouts. Georgiana freshman Ted Clem then hurried onto the field and booted a game-winning 50-yard field goal as time expired to give the Trojans the National Championship.

“We got him in position and he made the kick,” Christensen recalled. “It was a great kick form Ted and it would have been good from 65 (yards) easily. It’s just amazing to think about what we were able to do.”

Christensen’s final game as a Trojan saw him throw for 167 yards and rush for 60 yards and a touchdown enroute to becoming a national champion. After the season, Gailey took a job with the Denver Broncos and offered to bring Christensen along with him. The Broncos, though, had both John Elway and Gary Kubiak on the roster already, so Christensen opted to sign with the Birmingham Stallions of the USFL.

“That was a unique experience, for sure,” Christensen said with a laugh. “I went there and it was an eye-opening experience. You go out to practice and guys were smoking cigarettes on the sideline and it just blew me away. We’d come back from practice and there would be a keg of beer in the locker room. It was an amazing experience and an eye-opening one.

“They had (Cliff) Stoudt and Bobby Lane, who both had guaranteed contracts, and they were only going to keep two (quarterbacks). Once the Stallions cut me I had a bunch of opportunities to play in Canada and I flew up to Calgary and they offered me a contract. I could dig ditches in Alabama and make more money than they were offering. I decided that I was done.”

Christensen’s connection to Troy didn’t stop when he graduated. He continued to attend Troy games over the years and would regularly bring his nephew with him. His nephew, Brandon Silvers, would go on to become a record-setting quarterback at Troy himself.

Troy quarterback Brandon Silvers (12) prepares for a play during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Texas State in Troy, Ala., Friday, Nov. 24, 2017. (Photo/Thomas Graning)

“He chose Troy because that’s pretty much where we lived when he was a boy,” Christensen said of Silvers. “We went up every weekend and watched the games and he loved it. That’s why he went to Troy.”

Christensen and Silvers come from an impressive athletic family. Christensen’s mother played volleyball at South Florida and his father played football at West Alabama. Christensen’s sister Metta (Christensen) Roberts was 6A Basketball Player of the Year in high school and played in college at South Alabama. Christensen’s sons also played college football with Coleman Christensen playing at Furman and Corey Christensen playing at Samford and Texas A&M-Commerce.

After his playing days were over, Christensen spent some time as a teacher but then jumped into selling medical equipment in Texas, where he currently resides.

“I taught school for two years and found this business – orthopedic implants – and have been doing it ever since. I have no regrets,” Christensen emphasized.

Relive the epic comeback against North Dakota State in 1984: