Suburban QB guru helps area players excel
The 1983 NFL draft has long been renowned for the six quarterbacks chosen in the first round -- John Elway, Todd Blackledge, Jim Kelly, Tony Eason, Ken O'Brien and Dan Marino. Here's a trivia question: Who was the seventh quarterback taken in the '83 draft?
The answer is Jeff Christensen from Eastern Illinois, chosen in the fifth round by Cincinnati.
Christensen's career was filled with tough luck. A year later, the Bengals drafted Boomer Esiason. So Christensen joined the Philadelphia Eagles just as they added Randall Cunningham.
Years later, former Bears personnel director Bill Tobin told Christensen the Bears would have taken him had he stayed on the draft board a little longer. Maybe he could have had Mike Tomczak's career. Maybe the Bears would have had a better choice than Doug Flutie in the '86 playoffs.
But just because his NFL career was brief doesn't mean Christensen can't pay it forward. He's become a suburban QB guru, working with dozens of area players at several different locations through his Throw It Deep training programs (www.throwitdeep.com).
Christensen said eight of his students started on their high school varsity team last year as a sophomore or freshman, including Benet's Jack Beneventi, Stevenson's Willie Bourbon, Geneva's Daniel Santacaterina and Mundelein's Gavin Graves.
Some other senior returning starters he's worked with are Jacobs' Brett Mooney, St. Charles North's Erik Miller and Conant's Danny Modelski.
One of Christensen's prize students, Bears backup quarterback Matt Blanchard, met up with Christensen almost by accident one day at the Lake Barrington Field House. Blanchard had just finished his college career at Wisconsin-Whitewater and was getting ready to perform for NFL scouts at a pro day in Madison.
"He sees me throwing and says, 'Can I take some pictures of you?' And I was like, yeah, because I had heard of Jeff," Blanchard recalled. "He takes some pictures and goes, 'You've got a really strong arm. Why don't you give me a call in a couple days after your pro day.'"
Blanchard thought the pro day went well, but then Christensen dumped cold water on his NFL hopes.
"He was like, 'Well, I just want to let you know your feet aren't very good and you're a long way from being an NFL quarterback,'" Blanchard said. "It was kind of a humbling deal because here I am, I just had my biggest job interview in front of NFL scouts. I feel pretty good about it. Here I have somebody with experience telling me that I'm not there yet. So I was like, 'What have I got to do?'"
Blanchard started working with Christensen and about a month later, worked out for the Bears and received an invite to their rookie minicamp. The Lake Zurich native made the practice squad last year, and this season Blanchard completed 16 of 19 in two preseason games for 193 yards and an interception before he broke a knuckle on his left hand against the San Diego Chargers.
"What Jeff did for me was he kind of set an infrastructure in my mind," Blanchard said. "I never had anybody take me and break me down and say this is what you have to do. Being a detail-oriented guy, it was critical for me to have somebody do that. Meeting Jeff was just the perfect storm."
Learning from the best
It's interesting that Christensen helped a former Division III quarterback land an NFL job. Because one of Christensen's best teachers was arguably the greatest DIII success story ever, Bengals quarterback Ken Anderson, who played in college at Augustana.
"When I got to Cincinnati, I was doing a lot of things right," Christensen said. "Kenny was doing it a little different, having been coached by Bill Walsh and making himself a great quarterback. I would ask, 'How are you doing this?' He said, 'Do this, this and this.' I'd say, 'OK' and I would just do it. Then all of the sudden, I would start to realize this stuff really works … obviously."
After a couple of years playing with Anderson and Turk Schonert in Cincinnati, Christensen found another good mentor in Philadelphia's Ron Jaworski.
"Very, very helpful guys who weren't threatened by anything or anybody," Christensen said. "All three of those guys were very average athletically. So they had to do all those little things right in order to make the ball come out of their hand as perfect as possible. They were much more like me. So the more I applied what they told me, the better I got."
Christensen went on to play for Cleveland, Denver and the Los Angeles Rams, but his time under center was limited to a handful of mop-up appearances and three replacement games for the Browns in 1987.
He moved into the business world, working as an insurance agent and stockbroker. He started coaching his son Jake, who led Lockport High School to a state title, started at quarterback for Iowa in 2007 and finished his career at Eastern Illinois.
When he began coaching Jake, other parents asked him to work with their sons, and a new business path blossomed.
"The next thing I know, there are 25 people," Christensen said. "I realized this is what I should be doing. I walked away from my stock brokerage and started doing this."
Another interesting part of this journey is Christensen grew up on a 1,200-acre farm in downstate Gibson City. His quarterback instruction growing up came from watching NFL games on television and a couple of college camps.
"I had my license for about a month and my dad said, 'OK, here's your map. You know how to get (to the camp), right? Here's your money. Good luck,'" Christensen said. "I got back to Gibson and my coach said, 'What are the five best pass plays you learned? Draw them up so we can put them in.'"
Not long ago, Sports Illustrated featured a renowned quarterback trainer who works in San Diego, George Whitfield Jr. His students do jedi-style drills on the beach and sometimes while wading in the ocean.
In contrast, Christensen sticks mostly to the basics that can benefit quarterbacks of all ages.
"We ask these kids at young ages to throw the ball too hard and too far," he said. "So what winds up happening is their technique suffers because it causes all these elongations. The whole thing with throwing a football is feet, knees and hips. You've got to teach a kid to have a good base and have a good foundation.
"The most important thing you can do with a kid is teach them perfect feet, knees and hips, knowing that their arm is going to get stronger and they're going to get bigger. The problem is a lot of people don't have patience with that anymore. They want a 12-year-old to be a finished product."
Christensen's client list promotes the results. Blanchard will often attend his sessions, throwing next to high school players. Notre Dame backup Andrew Hendrix and Indianapolis Colts second-year QB Chandler Harnish of Northern Illinois are frequent participants.
"He's the best quarterback coach I've ever seen," said North Chicago coach Glen Kozlowski, who witnessed plenty of quarterback development in his days with the Bears and BYU. "He's a goofy guy. He's a little different. From a fundamental standpoint, he's the best I've seen and he's able to relate it to every age group."