Charles Thomas "Chuck" Crist, a New Orleans Saints safety who played three seasons in the Crescent City, died Wednesday, Oct. 28 at the age of 69 following a long illness.
Crist played seven seasons in the NFL with the New York Giants (1972-74), New Orleans Saints (1975-77) and the San Francisco 49ers (1978). The 6-foot-2, 205-pounder was the leader of the Black & Gold defense in 1977 and was named the team's defensive MVP. He finished his career with 20 interceptions, including four during his team MVP campaign with the Saints.
"You could always count on Chuck," said fellow New Orleans Saints defensive back Tommy Myers. "He was very consistent. Consistency was what stood out in my mind about Chuck. He would always give you a real good effort. He was always in the places he was supposed to be. And every once in a while he would make a big play that would help us win the game."
Born on Jan. 16, 1951, Crist grew up in Salamanca, N.Y. He demonstrated his superb athletic ability at Salamanca High School where he was named the Most Valuable Player on four separate teams during his senior year.
In 1967, he quarterbacked the school's football team and was the Southwest Conference player of the year. On the hardwood, Crist was First Team All-Western New York and averaged 24.6 points per game leading the Warriors to the Section IV championship. He finished his career with more than 1,000 points. On the baseball diamond, Chuck was named First Team All-League, and in track in field his school record for the triple jump (45 feet 1¼ inches) still stands. The Buffalo News honored Crist with the Billy Kelly Award as the Outstanding Student Athlete in Western New York.
Crist was offered football and basketball scholarships to Penn State University, where he was intent on winning the starting quarterback job when he arrived on campus in 1968. But after being told he was being moved from quarterback to defensive back, he decided to shift his focus to basketball.
"When I got to camp the very first day, I went in to get my equipment and I told them my name, 'Chuck Crist,'" he said in a 2019 interview with The Buffalo News. "(One football coach) goes, 'What position?' I said quarterback. So he flips the page and he looks and he goes, 'There's 16 of them here and you're not one of them.' And then he flips the page and says, 'Oh, defensive back. There you are. Number 2.'"
Crist never played a down of college football. Instead, he lettered for three years as a college basketball player for the Nittany Lions. In his junior season, Crist led Penn State in field goal percentage (49.3 percent) and was named the team's Most Valuable Player. As the team's captain his senior season, he led the team to a 17-8 record and again was named the team's MVP.
"I never got on to the football field," Crist said. "I only watched two football games while I was there. I was a pretty confident, brash young kid. One of the reasons I chose Penn State was that they were going to give me the opportunity to play both sports, and then make a decision. They wanted me to be a defensive back first thing, and I said, that's not the agreement. So I got up, shook Joe Paterno's hand, said 'Thank you very much,' and left the team."
Despite his success in college basketball, Crist felt a calling back to the gridiron and was signed as an undrafted free agent by the New York Giants. He made his NFL debut as a defensive back in 1972.
"Two (Penn State) football coaches said, even though you haven't played, you've still got a nose for the ball," said Crist about how he got his chance at career in the NFL. "We still think, maybe (you can play in the pros). If we can get you a tryout, would you take it? I said sure. Coach (John) Bock heard that, and he said to me, there's some scuttlebutt about you trying to play football. I said, what do I have to lose? He made a phone call. His close friend at Fordham was Wellington Mara, whose son John now owns part of the Giants. John was the basketball manager. He called Wellington, and they flew me to New York (for the tryout)."
Following his football career, Crist moved back to Western New York and began to show his athletic skills at yet another sport – golf. He won the club championship at Holiday Valley Resort six times.
"I wound up raising my children," Crist said of how he spent his time following his football playing days. "My wife was in the real estate business and was very supportive. My son was eight and my daughter was five. Summertime, she'd tell me to take the kids up to the golf course. We'd swim a lot, play some golf. It was a nice lifestyle. I was in the insurance business for a couple of years. But it wasn't me. I went into teaching and coaching, and that was my niche. I had a chance to teach my kids. They went to college on golf scholarships. Then I had the opportunity to be an assistant coach in football and basketball at Alfred. It was a great experience. I love being around kids, and the games."
Crist later served as a high school principal and elementary school principal in the Salamanca School District. He announced his retirement from school administration effective Jan. 29, 2015, citing health problems. Prior to returning to Salamanca, Crist had also picked up assistant coaching with Cattaraugus Central School from 1983 to 1985, and with the Alfred Saxons football team from 1985 to 1991.
Because of his skill and domination in his athletic endeavors, Crist was recognized as the Southwestern New York Athlete of the Century by the Olean Times Herald. He was inducted into the Cattaraugus County Athletic Hall of Fame in 2003 and the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame in 2015.
Crist spent his last days in Bemus Point, N.Y. He is survived by his wife, son, daughter and grandchildren.