Not everything we remember fondly from our childhood was actually that good. TV shows, records, certain types of candy, all seem less than appealing when revisited at a more learned age. Jets wide receiver Al Toon retired when I was 16, but was unquestionably one of my favorite players of the first few years of my Jet fandom.
In essence, it doesn’t really matter how good he was. The reason he goes into the TJB Hall of Fame is because he was a fan favorite, as evidenced by the number of people that were calling for him to be inducted on that basis when the notion of a new class of inductees was floated a few weeks ago. That’s one of the central tenets of this hall of fame idea. We, the fans, can honor whoever we like for whatever reason we like. However, a look back on his career shows that, without question, Toon deserves to be there on merit.
Standing 6’4″, the graceful, yet explosive Toon was described as “Majestic” by writer Ken Thomas in 1992 and I don’t think there is a better adjective to describe him. Leaping above defensive backs, snaring catches, shrugging off tacklers and running away from cornerbacks in the open field, Toon stood out from the moment he first put on the Kelly Green and White. Simply put, to young children and adult fans alike, Toon was cool….bigger. faster, stronger.
Even before he came to the NFL, Toon was involved in one of the coolest trick plays in college football history. Although his Wisconsin Badgers would ultimately lose to Illinois in 1982, the game will forever be remembered for “the bounce pass”. The quarterback (having tipped off the officials to the fact that this play would be coming so that they didn’t blow the play dead), threw a sideways lateral to Toon in the flat, but so that it came up just short. Toon had to do his best acting job, as he was disappointed that the “forward pass” had fallen “incomplete”, so he casually scooped the ball up as if he was going to just hand it back to the official, then suddenly turned and fired a forty yard touchdown pass to an open receiver deep downfield. Genius.
Toon was a world-class athlete, who excelled at the triple jump, where he had competed in the Olympic trials and almost went to LA in 1984. When he was selected 10th by the Jets in the 1985 draft, some critics said it was a mistake, as the Jets had been burned when they drafted an athlete to play wide receiver just a few years before.
However, unlike Johnny “Lam” Jones, who Toon would effectively replace on the Jets roster, Al was more than just an occasional deep threat. With his size, Toon was able to go over the middle and make yardage after the catch. His excellent hands made him a reliable possession option. Toon maintained that the strict nuances and intricacies of perfecting his technique for the triple jump had prepared him perfectly for the co-ordination required to twist or adjust in mid-air and still make and hold onto a tough catch.
In his rookie year (1985), Toon replaced Kurt Sohn in the starting line-up halfway through the season and ultimately caught 46 passes, more than Jones had managed in any of his five years in the league. He scored his first NFL touchdown in a week nine win over the Colts on a 17 yard pass from Ken O’Brien to open the scoring and then two weeks later, added a 78 yard score (for the longest catch of his career) in an incredible 62-28 demolition of the Bucs. He would finish the year with 3 TD catches.
He was a perfect compliment to Wesley Walker, a bona fide deep threat, and Mickey Shuler, one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the league. With Freeman McNeil spearheading the running game, the immobile but strong-armed QB Ken O’Brien had plenty of options at his disposal, as the Jets offense for the next few years would be a force to be reckoned with.
Predictably, given the promise he showed at the end of the previous season, 1986 was a breakout year for Toon. He caught 85 passes, surpassed the 1,000 yard barrier for the first time and landed in the Pro Bowl for the first of three consecutive appearances in Hawaii. He also caught a career high 8 TD passes and was a big part of the Jets nine game winning streak that took them to a league best 10-1 record. Injuries would hamper the Jets at the end of the year, as they limped into the wildcard game at 10-6. However, Toon’s sliding 22 yard TD catch keyed their win over the Chiefs and then the Jets would come within a Pat Leahy chip shot of an AFC Title Game against the Broncos (who they had already beaten that year), as they lost a double overtime heartbreaker in Cleveland.
Toon had several big games over the course of the season, breaking out with 119 yards and a TD on six catches in the opener against Buffalo and then adding seven catches for 111 yards in the memorable 51-45 overtime win over Miami two weeks later. He really exploded in weeks nine and ten, catching 15 passes for 296 yards and five TDs.
One of the most exciting plays I can recall from my childhood, came as the Jets were eight ninths of the way through their nine game winning streak in 1986 and playing in Seattle. The gamebook may just show a 36 yard TD pass from O’Brien to Toon, but what actually happened was that O’Brien threw a high bomb down the right sideline, for Toon to leap up over the defensive back and snare. As the two fought for the ball, Toon was upended in midair and eventually landed on his back on top of the defensive player, as the ball had slid down between his legs. Smoothly and effortlessly, as if performing part of a choreographed breakdance routine, Toon rolled over the defender onto his feet and then, realizing the ball was still between his legs, coolly reached behind his legs, tapped it up into the air and grabbed it for the touchdown.
It happened so fast, that you couldn’t appreciate exactly what happened until you saw it in slow motion. David Tyree might have made the helmet catch, but he has nothing on the unflappable Toon.
Toon returned to the Pro Bowl after the strike shortened 1987 season, but the season as a whole was a disappointment for the Jets. With all five teams in the AFC East (back then, the Colts were also in the division) tied at 5-5 in week 11, the Jets got a big win over the Bengals on Rich Miano’s last gasp blocked field goal return. Toon, who ended the year with 68 catches for 976 yards and 5 TDs, exploded with 23 catches for 378 yards and 3 TDs over the next three games, but the Jets lost all of them, and their last one, to miss the playoffs at 6-9.
In 1988, the Jets ended the season on a positive note, as Toon’s last minute TD catch eliminated the Giants from playoff contention and gave the Jets a winning record. However, they were already out of contention themselves, having blown several tight games. Toon enjoyed a career year, leading the NFL in receptions with 93 and finding his way onto several all-Pro teams. His accomplishments included three double-digit catch games, including 13 against the Colts and a career-best 14 against Miami and he became the first Jet since Joe Namath to win three straight team MVP awards.
In 1989, Toon only played in 6 full games and parts of five others as the Jets slumped to 4-12. He still managed to catch 63 passes though, including ten for 159 yards and a TD in a memorable 40-33 win in Miami.
Throughout his career, Toon would be inextricably linked with Jerry Rice. Drafted ahead of Rice, many thought he was the greater talent, but while Rice went on to become the consensus greatest wide receiver in NFL history, Toon’s career, though spectacular while it lasted, would ultimately be limited to just 7 seasons due to injuries. Maybe if Toon had been on a team with more weapons, he would have lasted longer. Although the Jets attempted to surround him with other playmakers, injuries to those guys would leave Toon, whose toughness would lead him to play through pain, as the only threat for the Jets, so he was a marked man.
The Jets recognised this as his yards per catch average had fallen to a (then) career low 11 yards in 1988 and 1989, coinciding with injuries to the likes of Walker, McNeil and Shuler. The additions of high draft picks Rob Moore and Reggie Rembert did give him a little more freedom, although neither lived up to expectations in their own right, and Toon was a more dangerous threat again over the next two seasons. He would still miss several games, however, but continued to be a quiet leader.
Over in San Francisco, Rice stayed healthy and won several Superbowls and set many records for the 49ers. However, over the first five years of their respective careers, Toon actually had 9 more receptions than Rice. To be fair to Rice, his overall numbers were still far better than Toon’s (he had 70 TDs in that period, to Al’s 23 and more yards in every season) but this does give some indication as to Toon’s potential had he been in the right situation. Make no mistake, Al was an outstanding player and when he was healthy, the Jets usually won more than they lost.
In 1990, Bruce Coslet took over as head coach. Early in the season, it was revealed that Toon had played four games with a broken back and injuries continued to be a problem, causing him to miss four starts. As the Jets went 6-10, Toon caught 57 passes for 757 yards and six TDs. The season had started promisingly for Toon with an eight catch, 118 yard and 2 TD performance against the Bengals, but he would only post two further 100 yard games that year.
Al Toon was refreshingly different from the modern breed of trash-talking, give me the damn ball, me-first, endzone-extravaganza executing wide receivers. Quiet, humble and classy, he represented the Jets in a manner befitting one of the league’s top role models. In an era when NWA and Public Enemy were the flavor of the month, Toon listed his favorite musical act as Luther Vandross. In 1990, when he signed a contract extension, he said that he didn’t want to be the highest paid player on the team and therefore accepted a $1.25m a year contract, $50,000 less than the then highest-paid player, Ken O’Brien.
“I didn’t want to create any animosity between myself and any player who typically gets paid more…it gets to the point where a few thousand here and a few thousand there isn’t worth it to affect team unity.” he said. Why can’t today’s stars (and guys not worthy of being called a star), deal with their situations with the same level of class and decorum?
1991 was a renaissance of sorts, as Toon only missed one game and fell just short of his third thousand-yard season, with big games in wins over Green Bay and New England helping to lead the Jets to a wild card berth that they clinched with a winner-takes-all overtime victory in Miami on the final day of the season. Although he didn’t score a TD all season, he delivered with a diving ten yard TD catch in the wild card game against the Oilers, but the Jets came away with just three points from four trips inside the ten (including two fourth downs stuffed at the one and an O’Brien interception) and ultimately lost 17-10.
Toon’s final season saw him start just eight games and make a career low 31 catches for 311 yards as the concussions that had plagued him throughout his career really started to take their toll. He eventually would announce his retirement after what was initially reported as his fifth career concussion, but then officially reported as his ninth. Toon would later estimate that the final concussion of his career was his thirteenth.
Here at TJB, we have discussed the dangers associated with concussion at length. Expert Chris Nowinski even described the Jets franchise as “ground zero” for the concussion problems that persist today, with Toon and Wayne Chrebet the two most high-profile victims. Sadly for Toon, his battle with post concussion syndrome has been particularly harsh. He said that he was unable to watch his kids on a merry-go-round without feeling dizzy and expected to have to deal with issues such as headaches, nausea and disorientation for the rest of his life. At one stage, there was even media reports of Toon suffering from amnesia and constant confusion.
Happily, recent reports on Toon’s health have been more positive. He even completed a triathlon in 2004, which included a marathon run. He is now involved in mentoring his son, Nick, who – after red-shirting the 2007 season – is now 6’3″, 220 pounds and looks set to push for playing time as a wide receiver and kick returner for the Badgers at his Father’s alma mater. Just last month, Toon also was appointed to the board of directors for the Green Bay Packers. He can now add a place in the TJB hall of fame to his list of achievements.
Since Toon has retired, he has been seriously missed. It may feel like forever since you saw #88 making a spectacular catch or running away from defenders. That may, in part, be due to the “curse of the number 88 jersey”. Since Toon retired, everyone who has worn the jersey has suffered from an unfortunate inability to hold onto the football. Anthony Becht, Doug Jolley, Stevie Anderson, Chas Gessner, Sean Ryan, Curtis Caeser, Kyle Brady, Quinn Early. Good luck, Bubba Franks. Perhaps this is a sign they should have retired his number. He deserves it.