In 1968, the New York Jets won Super Bowl III in their ninth season as a franchise.
After that year, it would be a while until the organization returned to the postseason.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that the team got back on track and posted winning records.
One of the players who contributed to the resurgence was receiver Al Toon.
Toon was a record-breaking pass catcher for the Wisconsin Badgers before becoming a first-round selection of the Jets in 1985.
As a pro, he acclimated quickly and would eventually lead the NFL in receptions.
Toon’s reception totals remained high until a series of concussions forced him to retire in his prime.
This is the story of Al Toon.
High School Dual Sport Star
Albert Lee Toon Jr. was born on April 30, 1963, in Newport News, Virginia.
🎉 HBD to #NYJetsLegend WR Al Toon, who turns 58 today! No. 88 played his entire career w/ the #Jets from ‘85-‘92. 517 RECs, 6,605 YDs, 31 TD’s, 3X Pro Bowl, 3X All Pro, AFC Player Of Year ‘86, NY Jets All Time 4 Decade Team, & NY Jets Ring of Honor. He retired at 29. pic.twitter.com/oXcxL0JJun
— NYJetsStan (@jets_stan) April 30, 2021
Toon’s athletic ability and future success in football began by leaps and bounds, literally.
When he reached Menchville High School in Newport News, jumping fascinated Al Toon.
He gravitated to the school’s track and field program where he worked religiously on his triple and long jumps.
Before long, he was reaching over 50 feet in the triple jump, a rare feat for someone his age.
In fact, only two other athletes in his district had reached the mark. Toon did it no less than three times.
Competing in the long jump, Toon’s best attempt measured 23 feet.
The ability to jump high and far got him noticed by the Menchville High football team.
Toon tried out for the team and the coaches were stunned by his leaping ability.
He was placed at the receiver position and became one of the best at his position in the state of Virginia.
Nearing his high school graduation, Toon was pursued by a number of large schools including those in the Big Ten.
The Wisconsin Badgers offered Toon an opportunity to play football and compete for the school’s track team.
Toon accepted the offer and made his way to Madison, Wisconsin.
Toon Excels as a Badger
It didn’t take long for Toon to adjust to the demands of collegiate athletics.
In 1982, he played in 11 games as a receiver and caught 32 balls for 472 yards and eight touchdowns.
Toon also got involved in some trickery when he attempted three passes, completing two of them for 40 yards and a touchdown.
That same year, Wisconsin appeared in their fifth bowl game as a program when they faced Kansas State in the 1982 Independence Bowl and defeated the Wildcats 14-3.
The victory also happened to be the Badgers’ first-ever bowl victory.
In 1983, Toon became the big man on campus for both track and football.
During Wisconsin’s 7-4 season, Toon caught 45 passes for 881 yards and nine scores.
On November 12 of that year, the Badgers traveled to Purdue, and the game turned into an Al Toon highlight reel.
In helping Wisconsin to a tight 42-38 victory, Toon racked up 252 receiving yards (a conference record).
Happy 59th birthday to former Wisconsin Badgers WR, Al Toon! 🎉
He spent his entire eight-year, All-Pro career with the New York Jets.#NFLBadgers x #TakeFlight
(📸 via Wisconsin Athletics; New York Jets) pic.twitter.com/KwqmJp2y5n
— NFL Badgers (@NFLBadgers) April 30, 2022
He was named team MVP for the year and was added to the All-Big Ten first-team list.
Part of the reason Toon shined on the gridiron was his work in the jumping events as a member of the Badgers’ track and field team.
Competing in both the indoor and outdoor track seasons in 1983 and 1984, Toon won the Big Ten triple jump title three times.
He set the conference record in the triple jump in ’83 with a leap of 54-7½.
While attaining All-American status in track following the ’83 season, Toon also qualified for the Olympic Trials in both the triple jump and the 110 high hurdles.
Toon continued to put up great stats as a senior in 1984.
As Wisconsin went 7-4-1, including a Hall of Fame Classic Bowl loss to Kentucky 20-19, Toon had 54 catches for 750 yards and five scores.
He was named first-team All-Big Ten again and was also voted as team MVP for the second year.
That represented the first time a Badger had been named team MVP in back-to-back years since Alan Ameche in the mid-1950s.
After Wisconsin’s season officially ended, Toon was invited to some senior showcases including the Japan and Hula Bowls.
Favorite player(s) from Wisconsin and/or Ohio State. Who you got?
Mine👇 Al Toon. I wanted the Lions to draft him in 1985 but they selected Lomas Brown, which worked out very well. pic.twitter.com/jXNabFUYRy
— FB_Helmet_Guy (@FB_Helmet_Guy) September 25, 2022
During the Hula Bowl, he snagged 10 passes for 124 yards and two scores, leading to game MVP honors.
In track, Toon was named All-American for the second time in the triple jump.
Due to his accomplishments in track and field and football, Toon was named Wisconsin’s Male Athlete of the Year for 1984.
He was inducted into Wisconsin’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 1995.
First Round Pick
By the time the 1985 NFL Draft arrived, Toon was a known commodity in league circles.
His performance in the Hula Bowl stood out since it was against some of the best players in the country.
In three years at Wisconsin, Toon set program records with career receptions (131), yards (2,103), and touchdowns (19).
Basically, his talent was too good to pass up and the New York Jets selected Toon with the 10th overall pick in the first round of the draft.
Jets Ring of Honor member Al Toon turns 56 today. pic.twitter.com/Rr6Reaf8SY
— Manish Mehta (@MMehtaSports) April 30, 2019
He joined a roster with receiver Wesley Walker, running back Freeman McNeil, and quarterback Ken O’Brien from the celebrated 1983 quarterback draft class.
The Jets’ defense included three members of the vaunted “Sack Exchange,” Marty Lyons, Joe Klecko, and Mark Gastineau.
At the time, it had been three seasons since New York had played and lost in the AFC Championship game against the Miami Dolphins during the 1982 playoffs.
Then, after two consecutive 7-9 seasons, the Jets were looking to return to the postseason.
Toon and the Jets Reach the Playoffs
Although he was a rookie, Toon didn’t back down from the competition of his fellow pros.
In 1985, he started eight games and played in 15, catching 46 passes for 662 yards and three touchdowns.
Remarkably, despite having started in only half of the Jets’ games, Toon finished second in team receptions behind tight end Mickey Shuler, who had 76 catches.
Legends are rarely quite as legendary as Al Toon! 👑
Pro Bowler x 3
All-Pro x 3
1988 NFL Receptions Leader
NY Jets Ring of Honour
Where does he rank for you? 🤔 pic.twitter.com/34JO0RZ2VR
— New York Jets UK (@NYJetsinUK) December 17, 2021
Due to a well-balanced squad that saw New York ranked seventh overall in offense and third in defense, the Jets went 11-5 and met New England in the Wild Card round.
Toon caught nine passes for 93 yards during the contest, but the Patriots ended New York’s season 26-14 on their way to meeting the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XX.
In 1986, Toon avoided a sophomore slump by catching 85 passes for a career-high 1,176 yards and eight touchdowns.
It was evident that his size (6’4”), jumping ability, and willingness to catch balls in traffic made Toon one of the most dominant receivers in the game.
He was selected as a first-team All-Pro, to his first Pro Bowl, and was also named the AFC Player of the Year.
His play helped the Jets finish 10-6 and return to the postseason where they faced Kansas City in the Wild Card round.
Toon caught a touchdown pass during the second quarter as the Jets crushed the Chiefs 35-15 to advance to the Divisional round.
On January 3, 1987, New York faced the Cleveland Browns in Cleveland.
With barely four minutes left in the game, McNeil scored from 25 yards out to give the Jets a 20-10 lead.
The score prompted Jets announcer Charley Steiner to excitedly announce, “The Jets are gonna win this football game!”
Then calamity ensued.
After multiple infractions by members of the New York defense, the Browns clawed back and tied the contest at 20 by the end of regulation.
4 months from today the Jets will visit the Browns in a Week 2 matchup. The two clubs most famous battle has to be the “Marathon by the Lake” played on 1/3/87. Bernie Kosar passed for 489 yards, a playoff record that stood for 31 years. The @Browns won 23-20 in 2OT. #Browns #NFL pic.twitter.com/kAmE9bwh6m
— Johnstone (@JStoneTrivia86) May 18, 2022
In the first overtime, Cleveland kicker Mark Moseley missed an easy 23-yard field goal attempt.
Both teams failed to score the rest of the way and the game went into a second overtime.
Finally, Moseley connected from 27 yards to win the “Marathon by the Lake,” 23-20, and end New York’s season.
Toon Leads the NFL
Despite a nearly identical roster as the previous two years, the Jets could muster only six wins in 1987.
Toon proved he was not only a good pass catcher (68 for 976 yards and five touchdowns) but an excellent blocker.
“The biggest problem I have with Al Toon is he tried to do everything too perfectly,” Jets receivers coach Chip Myers said. “You don’t ask wide receivers to block ordinarily, but we asked him to block because we were going to get the running game cranked up. And he’s one of the best blockers that ever played the game. I mean he just doesn’t miss. Ever.”
Also, whenever he scored, Toon would hand the ball back to the referee instead of spiking or excessively celebrating with his teammates.
He was named first-team All-Pro and selected to his second Pro Bowl in ’87.
In 1988, New York won eight games while Toon led the NFL in receptions with 93 for 1,067 yards and five touchdowns.
December 18th, 1988:@nyjets knock @Giants out of playoff contention, as Ken O’Brien hits Al Toon in the back of the end zone with :37 remaining. Jets win 27-21 at the Meadowlands. pic.twitter.com/UjRfdGagnp
— Timeless Jets (@TimelessJets) December 18, 2020
He was named second-team All-Pro and selected to his third straight Pro Bowl.
The Jets Falter While Toon Puts in the Work
Toon’s presence on the Jets didn’t seem to help in the win column during his fifth season.
In 1989, the franchise could only produce a 4-12 record, the worst season in Toon’s time as a pro.
Meanwhile, Toon himself had 63 receptions for 693 yards and two scores.
After the ’89 season, New York fired coach Joe Walton and hired former Cincinnati offensive coordinator Bruce Coslet.
Coslet named Toon as a team captain before the 1990 season and the Jets improved to 6-10 while Toon caught 57 passes for 757 yards and six touchdowns.
“Al is the consummate team player,” said Coslet. “Right out of the box, I made him team captain. You could just see the leadership qualities he had oozing from him the very first day.”
In 1991, New York reached the postseason for the first time in five years with an 8-8 record.
Toon led the team in receptions for the sixth straight year when he hauled in 74 passes for 963 yards.
Want to see Al Toon kill a guy? Look no further #Jets pic.twitter.com/AdaDpMz2Gh
— NYJ MIKE (@NyjMike) May 30, 2022
During the Divisional round game against the Houston Oilers, Toon evened the score at 7-7 when he caught a 10-yard touchdown pass from O’Brien in the second quarter.
Unfortunately, the Jets could manage only a field goal for the rest of the game and lost to Houston 17-10.
Toon Retires in His Prime
Toon began the 1992 season on fire and had 31 receptions for 311 yards and two touchdowns through the first eight weeks of the season.
Was watching some old #Jets highlights and how about this 1992 drive where Ken O’Brien hooks up with both Freeman McNeil and Al Toon like it’s 1985.
This would be the last game O’Brien ever completed a pass to Toon and McNeil pic.twitter.com/T375UpiOMA
— NYJ MIKE (@NyjMike) May 18, 2021
Then, the reality of playing a violent game reared its ugly head for New York during a span of four games late in the year.
During a Week 10 contest against Denver, Broncos linebacker Michael Brooks crushed Toon.
He later told New York’s medical staff that the hit “felt like a cannonball hit me in the back of the head.”
All the years of catching footballs over the middle took their toll.
Toon was diagnosed with his ninth concussion as a pro and he used the diagnosis as a sign that it was time to retire.
“I still want to play,” he said. “That’s not the issue. I have to rely on the medical expertise of professionals. No one knows everything about the neurological system. It’s not an exact science. But when you reach a certain point, there’s a definite increase in risk of not recovering from the next blow.”
Three weeks after losing their leading receiver to retirement, the Jets experienced another devastating loss in a game against Kansas City.
During a defensive play, Jets defensive linemen Dennis Byrd and Scott Mersereau collided while trying to sack Chiefs quarterback Dave Krieg.
As Byrd’s helmet slammed into his teammate’s chest, a vertebra in his neck broke, leaving Byrd paralyzed.
ON THIS DAY: The Jets' Dennis Byrd is paralyzed by broken neck in 1992. Byrd eventually regained the ability to walk pic.twitter.com/FXBfaKELzu
— NBC Sports (@NBCSports) November 29, 2013
The loss of two valued teammates proved too difficult for New York and the team ended the year with a 4-12 record.
In his eight-year career, Toon had totals of 517 receptions for 6,605 yards and 31 touchdowns.
Toon is one of two players, along with Kellen Winslow Sr., to retire with more than 500 receptions in fewer than 110 games.
He was a two-time first-team All-Pro, second-team All-Pro once, three-time Pro Bowler, AFC Player of the Year, and NFL receptions leader once.
In 2011, Toon was added to the Jets’ Ring of Honor and named to the franchise’s All-Time Four Decade Team.
The relentless drive for success that Toon displayed as an athlete carried over into his private life after retirement.
Three years after leaving football, he helped found Capitol Bank and continues to serve on the board of directors.
He then started AT8 Companies to help develop commercial real estate and became an owner of Taco Bell, Burger King, and Hilton Garden Inn franchises.
If that weren’t enough, Toon became an owner of Olson Toon Landscaping, Inc., a landscape company based in the Midwest.
He was also on the board of directors for the Green Bay Packers and a life insurance company.
Toon’s life post-football has shown little of the lingering effects of the concussions that drove him from the game.
He has refused to dwell on the matter, preferring to live in the present.
“I do have some residual (effects) but nothing significant,” Toon said in 2011. “Nothing I care to talk about in public. I’m able to live a happy life. It is what it is. I chose the profession and I understood the perils of the profession when I was playing.”
Toon is married and has four children.
His son, Nick, followed in his dad’s footsteps and became a receiver, eventually playing for Wisconsin in college and the Saints and Rams as a pro.
Toon’s three daughters played volleyball in college.
In 2021, Molly Toon, a former volleyball star at the University of Michigan, was murdered by her husband, Royce Dale Lillard III.
We are extremely heartbroken and at a loss for words at this moment.
The Michigan Volleyball family is sending all of our love to Molly Toon and her family. She was an amazing friend, daughter, teammate and mother.
Molly will be greatly missed. pic.twitter.com/wNNUzl8oMp
— Michigan Volleyball (@umichvball) April 14, 2021
Lillard then killed himself after police confronted him.
Al and Jane Toon currently reside in Madison, Wisconsin, the town where they met in college.
Numerous pro football writers believe that Toon could have been a Hall of Fame inductee if his career did not end abruptly.
However, that’s also a matter that Toon refuses to worry about.
“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,” he said. “Character, to me, far exceeds the accolades or the touchdowns.”
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