Heads turned when wide receiver Al Toon walked onto the field for his first practice with the New York Jets four years ago. Toon had reported late because of a contract holdout, and the Jets were eager to test their first-round draft pick.
Quarterback Ken O’Brien lofted a pass, and Toon ran about 50 yards. A defensive back ran with Toon, stride for stride, but Toon juked the defender to the ground. And although the pass was underthrown, Toon made a diving catch.
Team officials and reporters who were watching practice marveled at the catch. But Mike Hickey, the Jets’ director of player personnel and the man who had drafted Toon, was quite calm about it all.
“Gentlemen, I rest my case,” Hickey said as he walked off the field.
And since that day, Toon has made a strong case for being one of the best receivers in the National Football League.
In his first game, Toon’s first reception went for 50 yards. In that first game, in fact, Toon caught 10 passes for 156 yards. He went on to set a team rookie receiving record and made the NFL’s all-rookie team.
Toon was even better in 1986 and 1987. The AFC offensive player of the year in 1986, he had more catches than any other wide receiver in the conference and was second, behind Raider tight end Todd Christensen, in total receptions. He led the AFC in catches in 1987.
Toon emerged as the top wide receiver in the NFL last season, leading the league with 93 catches for 1,067 yards. He was voted to the Pro Bowl for the third straight season and became the first Jet since Joe Namath to be voted the team’s most valuable player for three consecutive seasons.
“Al has proven over the years that he’s one of the premier wide receivers in the NFL,” Jet Coach Joe Walton said.
And last August, Toon became the highest-paid wide receiver in the NFL, signing a $3.975-million, three-year contract.
“The Jets can’t play without Al Toon,” said team President Steve Gutman, who negotiated the contract.
Indeed, Toon has become the heart and soul of the Jets since he was drafted out of Wisconsin in 1985. A former track star, he combines the speed of Paul Warfield and the size and toughness of Otis Taylor.
He has made spectacular catches seem routine and, at 6 feet 4 and 205 pounds, he runs like a cheetah.
Toon caught a touchdown pass with his legs in a 1986 game against the Seattle Seahawks. After leaping above a defender in the end zone, he squeezed the low-thrown ball between his knees and held it there as he crashed to the turf.
If the grace of Toon’s acrobatic catches puts one in mind of a ballet dancer, it’s not accidental.
While his teammates were taking such courses as the theory and technique of football in college, Toon studied ballet and tai chi, the ancient Chinese art of movement.
“I thought (ballet) was something that would help my flexibility and help me develop a sense of awareness about myself,” Toon said. “It’s something that helps indirectly in football.
“You don’t think about ballet when you’re out on the football field. But you learn something from ballet and you apply it subconsciously when you’re running (pass) routes or getting tackled.”
How does Toon reconcile ballet with the macho world of the NFL?
“There’s nothing wrong with being a ballet dancer,” Toon said. “There are macho men that take up ballet.”
Toon said he studied tai chi to learn how to relax.
“Tai chi is concentration and relaxation,” Toon said. “And football is a game of concentration. If you can’t focus on what route you’re going to run and what you have to do to beat your man, you won’t be successful.”
This, however, has been a frustrating season for Toon.
After missing most of training camp--he held out again--Toon is off to an uncharacteristically slow start because of shoulder and leg injuries. He ranks sixth in the AFC in receptions.
He suffered a sprained shoulder in the final exhibition game and sat out the season opener, a loss to the New England Patriots.
He caught 10 passes for 159 yards two weeks ago as the Jets beat the Miami Dolphins, 40-33, for their only win in four games this season. But after catching at least three passes in 52 consecutive games, that streak ended when Toon caught just two for 26 yards in a 17-10 loss to the Indianapolis Colts last Sunday.
He didn’t play the fourth quarter against the Colts after pulling a thigh muscle, but is expected to play in Monday night’s game against the Raiders at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
Al Toon ached all over.
He had suffered a knee injury and he had a bad case of the flu, which caused him to miss practice the week before Wisconsin played Purdue in 1983.
Although he felt like staying in bed, Toon decided to play against Purdue.
Wise decision. He wound up setting a Big Ten single-game receiving-yardage record when he caught eight passes for 252 yards and a touchdown.
“Most receivers can’t play under those conditions,” said Fred Jackson, former wide receiver coach at Wisconsin. “But Al went out and played the best game of his collegiate career.”
The best game of an extraordinary collegiate career, Jackson might have said. Toon set school records by catching 127 passes for 2,055 yards and 19 touchdowns.
He also excelled in track. He set a school record in the triple jump with a leap of 54 feet 7 inches and also won the long jump and high hurdles at the Big Ten meet.
“Track was my first love, not unlike Willie Gault (the Raider wide receiver who is also a track star),” Toon said. “I’ve always loved track and I’m developing a passion for football.”
Toon had the second-best mark in the U.S. in the triple jump going into the 1984 Olympic trials, but he failed to qualify for the U.S. team after pulling a hamstring.
“Obviously, it was a disappointment when I didn’t make the Olympics because it was something I worked for all my life,” Toon said. “I thought about the 1988 Olympics and the thought still crosses my mind in 1992.”
After missing the 1984 Games, though, Toon decided to concentrate on football. In his senior season, he caught 55 passes for 770 yards and five touchdowns. And then he caught 10 passes for 124 yards and two touchdowns in the Hula Bowl.
When NFL scouts rated the top wide receivers in the 1985 draft, three players stood out--Toon, Jerry Rice and Eddie Brown.
Toon was the first wide receiver selected when the Jets took him with the 10th pick of the draft. Brown was the 13th player taken, going to the Cincinnati Bengals, and Rice was the 16th player selected, going to the San Francisco 49ers.
Although Toon and Brown have had good careers, Rice has become the most widely acclaimed wide receiver in the NFL. He was voted the NFL player of the year in 1987 and was the MVP of the Super Bowl last January.
If the Jets had to do it over again, would they still take Toon over Rice?
“If we played on grass, we probably would have taken Rice,” Hickey said.
“Al only ran 4.65 (seconds in the 40-yard dash). But he ran the same on grass, on a track, on cement and with a uniform on. Running 4.65 with a uniform on is like running 4.45.”
Toon, Rice and Brown have compiled similar statistics in their first four seasons. Rice has caught 264 passes for 4,881 yards and 49 touchdowns, Toon has had 292 receptions for 3,881 yards and 21 touchdowns, and Brown has caught 208 passes for 3,787 yards and 23 touchdowns.
The 49ers use Rice differently than the Jets use Toon, however. Toon is the key to the Jets’ short passing game. He picks up difficult yardage over the middle. The 49ers use Rice as a deep threat.
“It doesn’t matter whether people think Rice is better than me,” Toon said. “The only thing that matters is what I think of myself. And I think I’m pretty good.”
So do a lot of other people.