ophers announcer plans to sign off after 50 years

by David La

In the Middle Ages, kings and queens depended on the herald’s voice to proclaim a guest’s arrival, or provide accounts of battles across the land.
Now in his 50th and final year calling Gophers football, modern day herald and local broadcasting legend Ray Christensen has become the king of his profession.
“He’s as good as it gets,” said columnist Sid Hartman of the Star Tribune. Hartman would know — he listens to Christensen’s broadcasts in the football press box.
“He’s the best college broadcaster in the business: football or basketball,” Hartman said.
But Christensen, 76, prefers to be a king among the people, a ruler of AM airwaves absorbed by listeners on college football Saturdays.
“I like to be on a ‘Ray’ basis with people,” Christensen said. “A few people call me Mr. Christensen, but most people that don’t really know me call me Ray. I think that means I’ve really become part of people’s lives, and that’s a good feeling.”
The Sept. 2 season opener against Louisiana-Monroe marked Christensen’s 500th Gophers football game, a milestone recognized with a halftime presentation at midfield and a standing ovation from the crowd.
Christensen’s five decades of play-by-play calls serve as the thread weaving the many Gophers wins, losses, countless players and former coaches into a historic football quilt.
On Aug. 11th, the College Football Hall of Fame presented Christensen with the Chris Schenkel Award, given annually to college football broadcasters on the local level who excelled in both their field and community.
“If you walk around New York or Los Angeles and say, ‘Do know Ray Christensen?’ the answer would be, ‘No,'” Christensen said. “At a local and state level we’re known, but to have that translated into a national award, I’m not that humble, I really like getting it.”
While the Schenkel Award brings national attention to local broadcasters like Christensen, it also reaffirms radio as a vital medium in today’s television-dominated culture.
From his days working as a KUOM 770 AM announcer in the basement of Eddy Hall, Christensen always valued radio as a theater for the mind.
“You can sometimes get the feel of an event through an announcer,” Christensen said. “People all their lives can get great images out of hearing a game. The announcer on television is guided by the picture which people can see, but radio is in the listener’s mind. You can make it whatever you want to.”
Christensen laid the tracks for his illustrious career at age 12, supplying play-by-play calls for a mythical baseball team called the Long Island Cavaliers.
Christensen and two friends, including long-time sports columnist Don Reily of the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Dispatch, started a dice baseball league by drafting players, designing uniforms and even composing fight songs.
As the pair of tumbling dice came to a halt, the boys would check the numbers rolled against the corresponding list of “plays” to determine the game’s action.
Christensen traces his future calling games back to these heady days of youth. On one occasion, a painter working in the Christensen household deducted two hours of pay from his salary because he kept stopping to listen to the action from Christensen’s imaginary game.
Christensen later honed his skills calling baseball games as a spectator from the bleachers at Nicollet Park, home of the Minneapolis Millers.
With yet another future media legend, the late Dave Moore of WCCO television, Christensen practiced away while watching the action — much to Moore’s chagrin.
A promising career in broadcasting surely awaited Ray Christensen, he enrolled at the Univeristy and began taking classes. Soon after, his country required his service.
The United States entered World War II in December 1941 and Christensen enlisted in the Army. On June 10th, 1944, Christensen landed at Normandy, France, four days after the heroic D-Day invasion.
After the war, Christensen resumed taking classes at the University and got serious about his radio career. After passing auditions given by the University’s Radio Guild, Christensen debuted in May of 1946 as the full-time announcer for KUOM radio.
Aside from the on-air education in writing, directing and live acting, Christensen also met a lady named Ramona Kinnett through the Radio Guild.
Ramona and Ray married in 1953, and remain together nearly 47 years later. The couple had three children.
“(Ramona) has always been there,” Christensen said, “and has often been the father when I’m gone.”
Two years before marrying, Christensen landed the job for which he remains synonymous, play-by-play announcer for Gophers football.
Though Christensen called Minneapolis Lakers basketball (1956-60), Minnesota Vikings football (1966-69), Minnesota Twins baseball (1970-1974), and 1,278 Gophers basketball games over the last 44 years, it’s those football Saturdays behind the mike where he did his most memorable and favorite work.
“Football in many ways has more going for it than any other game,” Christensen said. “And college football has an atmosphere that is like no other. It surrounds you, its wonderful.”
Of all the games played far below Christensen’s perch in the announcers booth, a 14-year-old contest between Minnesota and Michigan remains his most memorable.
In November of 1986, the Gophers met the undefeated Wolverines in the Big House — Michigan Stadium. In what looked like another Michigan victory en route to the Rose Bowl, indomitable quarterback Rickey Foggie kept Minnesota in the game long past most pundits’ expectations.
Foggie’s last gasp, a fourth quarter, 31-yard scramble to the Wolverines 17-yard line set the stage. Kicker Chip Lohmiller came in a few plays later with the game tied at 17, needing a 30-yard field goal for the win.
“Lohmiller kicks the field goal, the clock says zero and 104,000 fans are deadly silent,” Christensen said 14 years later in typical blow-by-blow fashion. “And that’s the most beautiful silence I have ever heard. I’ll never forget the silence.”
Of course, it’s the silence, or at least the absence of Christensen next season, which will evoke many a memory among long-time listeners.
The majestic whole of Christensen’s career dwarfs his considerable skills — his ability to call the fast-moving game of football with the precision of a metronome; his voice rising to a crescendo in time with the count-off of yards to a player’s touchdown; the appropriate, yet subtle adjectives included in a play’s description.
It all adds up to Christensen’s brand of play-by-play calls — the steak and the sizzle.
“He’s fully and totally prepared,” said Darrell Thompson, former Gophers running back and member of Christensen’s broadcast team. “He knows everything, and he has a certain authoritative style that’s unmistakable.”
Ironically, it’s his own legacy which Christensen fails to call as he sees.
“I keep reading and hearing things, but I’m still not sure,” Christensen said. “It never really settled in because the most important thing to me is the next game. And I suppose when I retire, maybe the thing most important will be the next game that I can attend.”
Fans lucky enough to sit within earshot of Ray at a future game can only hope the master decides to brush up on his skills right there in the stands.
Just like he did at old Nicollet Park.

David La Vaque welcomes comments at [email protected]