Jetting Through History: Al Toon
Al Toon's historical playmaking skills, knack for open field, and lethal combination of size and speed gave the opposition excruciating headaches every Sunday for nearly eight seasons. Sadly, it was concussion induced headaches that would eventually put a dramatic halt to his extraordinary young career in November of 1992.
In the summer of 1985, Al Toon was the New York Jets first selection of the NFL draft, being plucked 10 th overall from Wisconsin. After dominating the college ranks and setting career Badger receiving records, Toon was physically and mentally prepared to embark on his illustrious professional career.
Playing in his first year with the Jets, Toon quietly worked into the offensive scheme and settled for 662 yards with three scores. The following year, at age 23, everything skyrocketed for the young man from Newport News, VA. His numbers during the 1986 campaign nearly doubled as he hauled in 85 receptions for 1,176 yards with eight touchdowns, leading all Jets receivers in such categories, and third in the entire NFL.
In recognition of his breakout sophomore season, Toon was named to his first of three consecutive Pro Bowls. Over the course of those three seasons from 1986-1988, the 6'4" 205-pound wideout recorded 246 catches (including a career-high and league-high 93 catches in 1988), 3,219 reception yards, and 18 touchdowns. In the finale of his brilliant 1988 season, Toon capped off what is now considered one of the most cherished moments in Gang Green history. With 37 seconds left in regulation, Toon caught the game winning touchdown pass from Ken O'Brien to beat the cross-town rival Giants 27-21. Although the postseason was out of reach for the Jets (8-7-1), the Green and White played the spoiler card, as the Giants' loss forced them out playoff contention.
For the next three seasons, Toon battled through double coverage, sub-par team offense, and losing seasons. To no one's surprise however, he still managed to put up impressive numbers. In 1990 he brought in six touchdowns and followed that up with 74 receptions in 1991. Just as the Jets were starting another skid down the standings, things got a lot worse in a little amount of time. In week six at Denver during the 1992 season, Toon felt his football career fold in a foggy daze.
After an eight yard reception, Bronco linebacker Michael Brooks laid a standard, legal hit on Toon near the sidelines. Oddly, Toon didn't spring up as usual. As he recalls, the average hit didn't feel so average to him.
"It felt like a cannonball in the back of my head," said the then 29-year-old All-Star. "When I came to, I remember thinking it wasn't all that bad, but it got worse.
"The neurologists told me that in head trauma cases, there's an increase in the risk of not recovering from the next blow."
The hit turned out to be the final nail in the coffin; a small, yet critical add-on of a previous concussing blow to his head earlier in the game. According to Toon, the concussion received that day was his ninth, to the Jets medical staff it was just his fifth, but to everyone alike, it was one too many.
Due to such severe headaches, Toon was forced to sit out the following two games against Cincinnati and then New England. His teammates, worried of their close friend, noticed his lack of energy and inability to maintain a consistent attention span.
"You couldn't keep him focused in a conversation," Quarterback Ken O'Brien said. "His mind would kind of stray."
While watching the Jets drop a tough one 24-3 at New England, Toon confidently stated that he wasn't even contemplating retirement; however, to no one's surprise, reality soon took its course. The soft spoken receiver knew what was to be done.
"I guess when you're in my position, people make predictions for you. My teammates are concerned. It's a concern for me, the number of concussions," he admitted. "I feel better sitting still than moving around. I get real tired. Things I normally help with around the house, I can't."
With such frightening side effects, football was completely out of the question. The Jets young wideout had bigger things to worry about, such as his health and the future of his loving family. On November 27, 1992, Toon, who caught at least one pass in the previous 101 games he had played, announced his official retirement in front of a crowded auditorium at Weeb Ewbank Hall.
Although he left his beloved game numerous years and touchdowns short of what should have been, he still stands high atop many Jets receiving records. Among his most impressive stats, Toon currently ranks third behind Don Maynard and Wayne Chrebet for the Jets all-time receptions leaders, while standing fourth in club receiving yards with 6,605.
"I have no complaints about what transpired in my career," the great Jets wide receiver said. "My only regret is not being able to finish what I started the way I wanted to."