Ray Christensen, voice of the Gophers, dies at 92
BURNSVILLE — The Voice of the Gophers has fallen silent.
Ray Christensen, who did play-by-play for University of Minnesota football games for 50 years, died Sunday afternoon. The College Football Hall of Fame broadcaster was 92.
Christensen's son, Jim, said his father died of respiratory failure at Fairview Ridges in Burnsville.
Christensen called 510 Gophers football games and 1,309 Gophers men's basketball games on WCCO Radio in a career that covered parts of five decades.
"My father was an artist who started with a blank slate and, as the play developed, he started painting," said Jim Christensen, who worked with his father for 25 years providing statistics. "A lot of people told me they could close their eyes and they could see the game."
Generations of Minnesotans raked leaves or washed the car on a fall Saturday afternoon hearing Christensen's warm baritone, perfect diction and game-centered descriptions create a picture in their heads of an unfolding football play.
"He was extremely articulate, but never let the words get in the way of the action," said Dave Mona, who provided color commentary as Christensen's WCCO Radio broadcast partner for the final three years of his career.
Christensen was made a member of the University of Minnesota Athletics Hall of Fame, and his banner hangs from the rafters at Williams Arena, the home of Gophers basketball.
He is an original member of the hall of fame of Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis, where he went to school, and was inducted into the Minnesota Broadcast Hall of Fame in 2002.
His death was noted in a statement by Gov. Mark Dayton on Monday: "Along with all Minnesota sports fans, I mourn the loss of Ray Christensen. He filled my fall Saturday afternoons with his radio broadcasts of Gophers football games. He made the best wins sound sensational and the worst losses almost bearable!"
Family and friends described Christensen as a gracious, gentle, considerate man who spent thousands of hours recording books for the blind and reading to elementary school children in the community.
"He had no discernable ego whatsoever," Mona said.
Jim Christensen said his father once told him that the hardest play-by-play he did was describing a circus performance to blind children.
"How do you describe an elephant for people who have never seen an elephant?" Jim Christensen said. "He taught me how to love, how to treat people, to treat everyone with the same respect, no matter who they were."
Ray Christensen wrote two books. "Golden Memories," co-authored with Stew Thornley in 1993, covered all aspects of his life. "Gopher Tales" contained anecdotes on 11 different Gopher sports and was a regional bestseller.
Jim Christensen said that when his father would sign a book for a fan, he didn't quickly scribble his signature. He always made sure to include a personal message and carefully write his name legibly.
"He thought his autograph was important and people should be able to read it," Jim Christensen said.
Mona said people who met Christensen often were surprised that the man behind the deep, resonant voice wasn't particularly big, only about 5 foot 8, 155 pounds.
Ray Christensen grew up in Minneapolis and served in Europe with the U.S. Army during World War II. He graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1949, and started his career at the U's KUOM radio station in 1946, reading news and sports reports while studying broadcasting. Two years later, he was hired to be the Gophers' football play-by-play man.
He had a stint as program and sports director at WLOL before joining WCCO, where he worked full time from 1963 to 1993.
Christensen remembers that in his first year broadcasting Gophers football, he didn't get paid except for $2.50 in meal money on the road. In 1952, he earned $25 per game.
Among his favorite and most memorable calls were descriptions of last-second football wins at Michigan in 1986 and Penn State in 1999.
"The snap. The place. The kick. It's good!" Mona recalled Christensen saying on the air. "Ray said what was needed and nothing more."
"The Gophers have upset the No. 1 team in the nation, Michigan!" Christensen cried as Minnesota upset the Wolverines in Minneapolis in 1977. "The fans are streaming on the field and the Gophers are coming over to the sideline and getting the Little Brown Jug and holding it high! Oh, I hope the jug survives."
When the Gophers men's basketball team defeated UCLA to advance to the Final Four in 1997, Christensen bellowed, "The road to Indianapolis is now paved in Gold!"
Christensen also broadcast games for the Minneapolis Lakers, the Minnesota Twins and the Minnesota Vikings. A lover of classical music, he once hosted a daily music appreciation segment on WCCO radio.
Jim Christensen said his father was a "homer" who couldn't hide his love for the Gophers. But he was also willing to call it if the Gophers were at fault.
"He would call a spade a spade," Jim Christensen said.
Mona said if you heard Christensen broadcasting a Gophers game you could tell within a minute or two who was ahead even if the score wasn't announced.
In 2000, Christensen's last season calling Gophers football, Minnesota beat Ohio State in Columbus. That was the first time the U football team beat the Buckeyes on their home field in the 50 years Christensen had broadcast Gopher games.
"He got choked up at the close of that," Christensen said.
"He had seen a Gopher victory in every stadium but Ohio State, and in his final year they won. Pretty cool," said Jim Christensen.
Christensen, who lived in Rosemount, is survived by his wife, Ramona; sons Tom and Jim, and daughter Sue.
Funeral arrangements are pending. Memorials can be made at Communication Center for the Blind, St. Paul; the Danish Center Genealogy Department, Elkhorn, Iowa; or CLA Scholarships at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.
Brian Murphy of the Pioneer Press, a Forum News Service media partner, contributed to this report.