One of the most prolific receivers in New York Jets history, Al Toon, sat down with ESNY to talk about his current endeavors and his time in green.
Today’s National Football League is one that glorifies offense. New scoring heroes seem to rise every week. Earning 1,000 yards through the air or ground is commonplace. Four touchdowns might not even be enough to guarantee victory.
It’s an environment players like Al Toon probably would’ve thrived in.
In his days with the New York Jets, Toon managed to make a name for himself on a team that oftentimes prided itself on defense. In eight seasons in green (1985-92), Toon was one of the league’s most dangerous aerial weapons. He managed to put up 6,605 yards on 517 receptions over eight seasons. Injuries cut his prolific career short, but Toon’s numbers continue to rank in the higher halves of the Jets record books.
In the news cycle’s insistence of all-debates, all the time, Toon isn’t worried how he’d hypothetically stand in a league that coexists with diety known as fantasy football.
The receiver has instead transferred his prowess to new fields and is dominating life the same way he ran roughshod over defensive backs decades ago.
Retirement has been anything but for Toon. The 56-year-old has kept plenty busy in new endeavors, making a name for himself in banking, fast food and insurance since setting his Jets helmet down for the final time in 1992.
Toon’s football journey began in his birthplace of Newport News, Virginia and ended in the tri-state area. Those middle chapters have placed Toon in his modern surroundings.
Post-retirement life has been mostly spent in Wisconsin. Toon made a name for himself at the famed football program in Madison, where a record-setting performance led to his name being called 10th in the 1985 NFL Draft. Toon’s career program records (131 receptions, 2,103 yards and 19 touchdowns) have since been broken and eclipsed by modern Badgers. His own son Nick even managed to pass him up in 2011 (171-2,447-18), a sensation the father Toon called “humbling” and “awesome.”
Toon’s still making a difference in Madison to this day. Business wear simply replaces the iconic red jersey he’d adorn on Saturdays. A personal portfolio, one of his proudest endeavors, stands in place of a playbook. His “bye week” activities now include biking and car collecting.
“I’ve always been a fan of giving back. The community, the university has been good to me,” he said. “Madison, Wisconsin is a great location to raise a family. I met my wife, Jane, at the university, so that was another connection. I’m a Madison citizen. I’ve been here longer than I’ve been anywhere else. It’s home.”
The Toon family name has become synonymous with midwestern athletics. Each of Toon’s daughters, Kirby, Molly and Sydney, made a name for themselves through volleyball. Kirby kept family representation alive in Madison, while Molly and Sydney respectively starred at the Universities of Michigan and Wisconsin-Whitewater. Nick went on to play four seasons in the NFL, including a practice squad stint with the St. Louis Rams.
Each has since gone on to, as the famous NCAA ad campaign states, go professional in something other than sports, much like their father before them. It’s a legacy Toon is proud to have begun.
“Two of my kids are realtors. We like real estate in our family,” he said. “The most important thing for me is that I was a positive influence on the game, positive influence on personnel, that the fans enjoyed me as a person, not necessarily just because I was a decent athlete.
“Character, to me, far exceeds the accolades or the touchdowns.”
The abundance of activity prevents Toon from truly keeping an eye on the modern incarnation of Jets football. After all, he’s probably more active now than he ever was on the field … and that’s saying a lot.
Toon is one of two retired players in NFL history to earn at least 500 receptions despite playing fewer than 110 games (Chargers Hall of Fame tight end Kellen Winslow is the other). The game has undoubtedly changed in the three decades since Toon’s departure Even a casual observer like himself has taken notice. He’s not a fantasy football player, but says there’s “no question” that the virtual game has taken over the real thing.
“I think that the NFL has done a good job in leveraging an opportunity to increase viewership no matter how they increase it,” he said. “Here, they increase it by people focusing on winning, gambling or better, office bets, pulling people together by having them focus on something that’s fun.”
Toon last suited up in 1992, but his era of Jets football is still part of one of the most renowned and beloved periods on the team timeline. The Jets of the 1980s were defined by their defense (famously dubbed the “New York Sack Exchange”), but plenty of offensive firepower was on hand throughout.
Accompanying Toon were names like Freeman McNeil and Wesley Walker. Each has since been inducted into the Jets Ring of Honor.
“We weren’t a dominant winner, but I think we were entertaining. We were in most games and we had an opportunity to win. We were competitive. I think the fans loved that.”
Toon’s game log boasts a series of memorable performances that led to Jets victories. The 1988 season saw him score a game-winning touchdown in the dying stanzas of a Meadowlands battle with the Giants. That capped off a season that saw him tally 93 receptions, which stood as Jets record until Brandon Marshall broke it in 2015.
That year also features Toon’s most cherished in-game memory. Draft day takes the top spot overall (at 10th overall, he was the first position player taken in 1985), but a November game in Indianapolis stands out in his mind.
Two days after the birth of Nick, Toon put up his best performance of the season to that point, earning 13 receptions for 106 yards. The performance was a sign of things to come for the new father. After that game, Toon would tally 513 yards over the final six games of the season, including 181 in a 38-34 win over Miami three weeks later.
The Jets lost that game to the Colts 38-14. Nonetheless, Toon looks fondly on it to this day. It showcased the resiliency and persistence he displays to this day.
“(Nick) was born on Friday and I was playing on Sunday. I had a really good game,” the elder Toon fondly recalls. “With very little sleep!”
Toon believes the best is yet to come when it comes to the modern incarnation of New York’s green team. He sees similarities between the incoming squad and the teams he played for and hopes they can capitalize.
Much like Toon’s teams, the Jets are led by a touted first-round draft pick at quarterback. Back it was Ken O’Brien, whose spot is now filled by Sam Darnold over three decades later. A showstopping rusher also lined up behind them both, as fans hope newcomer Le’Veon Bell can duplicate what McNeil was able to do.
True to form, though, Toon’s advice to the young Jets didn’t stop at football.
“Take advantage of the head start and learn about life after the game,” he said. “Try to figure out what you’re going to do. The game doesn’t last forever. The average (career) is less than four years so if you’re spending time not focused on that, you’re behind the 8-ball when you’re done.
“I think the first lesson (young players) need to learn and have an understanding of is to know that, no matter how much you make, it could all be gone pretty quickly. There are piranha, vultures out there looking to take advantage of you and your situation and, typically, your inexperience and inability. My suggestion or offer to those who are blessed to be in this situation is to find people that they can trust, be very conservative, learn about what you’re going to invest in.”
It’d be ill-advised for any young player to deny Toon’s advice. After all, there are few better that have so much green both on and off a football field.