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Christenson's focus pays off

Former Hudson and UW-River Falls football player Griff Christenson (12) catches a pass for Pacific University in its 30-20 loss to Whitworth College Oct. 28 in Forest Grove, Ore. Photos courtesy of Griff Christenson 1 / 2
Hudson High School graduate Griff Christenson, left, poses for a picture with his sister, Jessica, after a Pacific University football game in Forest Grove, Ore., earlier this season. 2 / 2

Twice injuries have robbed Griff Christenson of his senior season of football — first in 2011 at Hudson High School and again in 2016 at UW-River Falls.

But last Saturday, Nov. 11, Christenson was finally able to end a senior season on his own terms as a graduate student at Pacific University College of Optometry in Forest Grove, Ore.

Christenson didn't catch a pass in the Boxers's 35-7 loss to Linfield College, the eighth-ranked NCAA Division III team in the country, but he played in all eight games at Pacific and finished with four catches, including a 5-yard touchdown reception in a 30-20 loss to Whitworth College on Oct. 28.

The fact that Christenson was able to take the field at all this season is rare and remarkable, and that's not even considering the fact that he had to recover from two broken legs and a broken foot to do it.

Christenson broke his left tibia twice as a senior at Hudson — once during football and again basketball — sidelining him for both seasons. He went on to UWRF and spent two full seasons on the scout team before scoring a pair of touchdowns in his first game as a senior, only to suffer a fifth metatarsal fracture in his foot a few weeks later.

"I thought that was it for my football career," he said. "One, because I didn't know that it was even possible to play football in optometry school, and two, because graduate students are ineligible to play at new schools under NCAA Division III rules."

Christenson had heard about an opportunity to pursue training in sports vision at Pacific College of Optometry and had always been interested in spending some time on the west coast. After he found out that Pacific University had a football team, he looked into the rules surrounding graduate student eligibility and learned he had to be granted a medical hardship waiver before seeking approval for a legislative relief waiver that would grant him eligibility as a graduate student transfer.

"I was told it was a longshot at best," he said.

After he was accepted into Pacific University's College of Optometry, Christenson, with the assistance of Pacific's NCAA compliance officer Lauren Brownrigg, began the long process of compiling the necessary information to send to the NCAA.

"Low and behold my waiver got approved and the optometry school gave me their blessing as well," he said. "I believe I'm the first optometry student to have the opportunity to simultaneously compete in football, but it took a lot of help from many people."

That help started while he was still playing for coach Adam Kowles at Hudson High School.

"Putting on the navy and white and playing for coach Kowles is something I'll never forget," he said. "However even more so than the wins and losses I remember the people."

Christenson says he remembers heading over to Al and Kris Larson's house on Frear Street next to Newton Field. "It seemed like the whole town ended up in their front yard on Friday nights in the fall." And he remembers long hours in the weight room with Nate Brine and Justin Guzman during Raider Elite.

He said playing football at UWRF was equally special to him for a number of reasons. His father, Garth Christenson played golf there and his mother, Lou Stuesser, attended the university. His grandfather, Neil Christenson, played basketball for the Falcons and his great grandmother, Gertrude Westburg, was the first family member to attend UWRF, making him a fourth generation Falcon.

"To say I felt prideful putting on the red and black would be insufficient," he said.

But even with the family ties, Christenson nearly never became a Falcon.

"I attended UW-La Crosse my freshmen year of college and when I inquired about playing football there, I was told there was no place for me," he said. "The next day I contacted coach Matt Walker at UWRF and he told me I'd be given a chance to try out for the team if I wanted to do so."

Christenson transferred to UWRF and after spending two years on the scout team admitted he nearly quit football. But after working with Falcon strength and conditioning coaches Carmen Pata and Veronica Woroniecki and adding 20 pounds to his 6-foot frame he saw playing time as a junior and broke into the starting lineup as a senior, catching 10 passes in the Falcon's first three games before breaking his foot in the WIAC opener against UW-Eau Claire.

Since moving to Oregon, Christenson said he's been busy balancing the workload of graduate school and athletics. He is a member of the class of 2021 at Pacific University College of Optometry, and said he realizes how fortunate he has been.

"I've hardly had time to think about the fact that I'm quite a way from home," he said. "Balancing my academics and athletics has been a challenge but I really am enjoying it. As someone who has lost their senior season in effect three times, I think I'm hyper-aware of how special of an opportunity I've received."

Bob Burrows

Bob Burrows has been sports editor at the River Falls Journal since 1996 and at the Hudson Star-Observer since 2009. Prior to joining the Journal, Burrows served as sports editor with Ledger Publications in Balsam Lake, Wis. A native of Bayonne, N.J. and a U.S. Navy veteran, Burrows attended Marquette University before completing his studies at UW-River Falls in 1992.

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