The Camp Randall 100 honors a prestigious group of 100 people who shaped the first century of Camp Randall Stadium. Wisconsin Athletics will reveal a new honoree every day from May 24 until the Badgers’ 2017 opening game on Sept. 1 against Utah State.
BY MIKE LUCAS | UWBadgers.com Senior Writer
Al Toon’s first recruiting letter came from Nebraska. The Cornhuskers were looking at him as a defensive end. He also played safety and tight end. He was versatile and athletic but extremely raw. He didn’t go out for football until his junior year at Menchville High School in Newport News, Virginia. And he was planning on a post-graduate career in the military, not college, because of his ROTC background.
Toon had no qualms about leaving home. On the contrary, he was very independent and wanted to expose himself to different people and environments. While at Menchville High, he came under the wing of Charles Nuttycombe, who coached him in football and track in addition to being one of his teachers. “He gave me some very important life pointers,” Toon said.
Although he was serious about enrolling at a military academy, Toon was intrigued by the prospect of earning a college scholarship whereby he could get his degree and still compete in the sport that he loved. Toon was a state champ in the triple jump and his stated goal was to represent the United States in the Olympics. Wisconsin offered him an opportunity to run track and play football.
“My priority was track,” he said, “and football was just something that I did.”
Football was a natural talent. Something which he was taught not to waste by Nuttycombe, a Hall of Fame track and field coach whose son, Ed Nuttycombe, also a HOFer, directed the Wisconsin program for 30 years. During that time, he won 26 Big Ten titles, more than any men’s coach in any sport in league history. In 1984, Nuttycombe won his first crown, the conference outdoor meet.
One of the Badgers’ individual winners was a sleek, 6-foot-4 long-jumper from Virginia.
He went by the name of Toon, Al Toon.
“Oh, they’ll still do it. They’ll walk up to me in a restaurant and do it.”
— Al Toon on fans still calling out Toooooooooonnn
The sound reverberated throughout Camp Randall Stadium during a stoppage in play.
Much to the bewilderment of the Michigan State and Wisconsin players on the field, the fans were reacting to a 1982 World Series game between the St. Louis Cardinals and Brewers in Milwaukee.
With the Camp Randall message board providing regular updates on the progress of Game 4, many were also listening on transistor radios to what was happening at County Stadium.
Trailing 5-1, the resilient Brewers rallied with two outs in the seventh inning. With the tying run on base, Cecil Cooper stepped to the plate, and the reaction was predictable, even in Madison.
Cooper, a stylish lefthanded-hitting first baseman, delivered with a base hit.
And once again, the Camp Randall crowd serenaded him.
Much like they would Al Toon.
For the record, the Brewers knotted the Word Series, 2-2, with a 7-5 come-from-behind win over the Cardinals. Meanwhile, the Badgers rallied for a thrilling 24-23 win over the Spartans.
Toon, a promising sophomore wide receiver, had five catches for 71 yards and a touchdown.
Toon’s initial reaction was, “What? What did I do?”
But he could live with the serenade “after I realized they weren’t booing.”
Once it grew on him, once it punctuated his every catch at Camp Randall, he said, “It was pretty cool to be acknowledged and to have a name that was easy to connect with something like that.”
The 54-year-old Toon has not caught a pass since retiring from the New York Jets in 1992. But when he’s out in public, he will occasionally get greeted in an odd way by complete strangers.
Really? Thirty-three years after playing his last game at Camp Randall? Really?
“Oh, they’ll still do it,” he assured. “They’ll walk up to me in a restaurant and do it.”
He’s generally flattered, not annoyed. “It’s better than people not liking you,” he reasoned.
What they really like to bring up is the pass, the bounce pass.
“They either talk about that,” he confirmed, “or they say Toooooon.”
The official attendance was 78,406. But so many more will claim to have been there that October day in 1982 when Toon fielded a bounce pass/lateral from quarterback Randy Wright. Decoying the Illinois defense into thinking it was a dead play, Toon completed a 40-yard touchdown toss to tight end Jeff Nault that pushed the Badgers into the lead.
(Toon’s arm was strong enough that he later served as the No. 3 quarterback, the “emergency” QB, with the New York Jets. “I practiced at quarterback and had my own little package of plays,” he said.)
Even though the Illini still won, 29-28, on a last-second 46-yard field goal, the “bounce pass game” was an unforgettable Camp Randall Stadium moment.
“My fondest memory was coming down the tunnel (for a final time at Camp Randall). I saw Jane (his future wife; they got engaged that December) and we went out and won.”
— Al Toon
Toon had many such moments during an illustrious Wisconsin career that got off to an uneventful start in 1981. As a freshman, he appeared in only five games and had two catches.
You won’t find any record of those receptions because they came against the College of DuPage, a Chicago-area community college, while he was playing for the varsity reserves.
Toon was far more successful with the track team as a frosh. He set the school record in the triple jump and qualified for the NCAA championships along with finishing third in the long jump at the Big Ten meet.
“I was an athlete and football was secondary to me,” he said. “I was still primarily trying to make the Olympic team. Frankly, I didn’t think football would be what I ended up doing as a sports career.”
Toon’s development as a wide receiver was accelerated his junior year with the arrival of assistant coach Fred Jackson on Dave McClain’s staff. Jackson was a teacher and positive influence.
“I had already gotten on the field and gotten more comfortable being a receiver,” said Toon, who had 32 catches and five TDs in 1982. “But he (Jackson) helped me become a better football player.”
Under Jackson’s guidance, Toon had 45 catches and led the Big Ten in receiving yards (788) and touchdowns (7) in 1983.
He also had a breakout game catching eight passes for 252 yards at Purdue. Toon’s only touchdown came at the expense of defensive back Rod Woodson, who went on to a Hall of Fame career.
The following week, Toon had 10 catches for 149 yards against Michigan State.
The 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles were still very much on his mind, though. Toon qualified in the high hurdles and triple jump (second-best mark in the nation) for the Olympic Trials in San Jose.
But he pulled a hamstring, knocking him out of the competition.
“I had to make a decision at that point,” he said. “I was projected as first-round draft choice, which I never thought about because I was going to travel the world and run track.”
The injury prompted Toon to reconsider his priorities. “After that,” he said, “I thought, ‘Let’s put a little more time in this — this football thing — and see where it’s going to go.’”
As a senior, Toon was a Playboy All-American and caught 54 passes for 750 yards and 5 touchdowns. He was voted the team’s MVP for a second consecutive year.
In his final home game, a 30-13 win over Purdue, he had seven catches for 118 yards and two TDs to complement tailback Marck Harrison who rushed for 225 yards.
“My fondest memory was coming down the tunnel (for a final time at Camp Randall),” he said. “I saw Jane (his future wife; they got engaged that December) and we went out and won.”
Toon remembered taking a lap around the field whereupon he reflected on what it meant to wear a UW uniform, “I was healthy, I had a great season and I was thinking, ‘I’ve been pretty blessed.’”
In the 1985 draft, Toon was one of three UW players taken in the first round. He went No. 10 to the Jets; Richard Johnson went No. 11 to Houston and Darryl Sims went No. 20 to Pittsburgh.
Toon caught 517 passes during his eight-year career in New York. In 1988, he led the NFL with 93 receptions. Twice, he had over 1,000 receiving yards. Three times, he made the Pro Bowl.
Here’s how Bleacher Report put his Jets tenure into perspective: Al Toon was the antithesis of Chad Ochocinco, Terrell Owens and other receivers cut from the aggrandizing, look-at-me cloth. He proved all receivers don’t have to be showboating knuckleheads.
Toon wouldn’t even spike the ball after scoring a touchdown. Instead, No. 88 played eight productive, classy seasons for the New York Jets, ducking the attention that he deserved.
After a string of concussions cut short his playing career, Toon returned to Madison where he has since thrived as a triathlete, successful businessman and entrepreneur.
He also has had the pleasure of watching two of his children play for the Badgers — son Nick played wide receiver (2007-11) and daughter Kirby played right-side hitter in volleyball (2009-11).
“It was a different type of emotional connection,” he said. “One, I was in control (as a player). The second I was not in control. So, there was more anxiety with regard to my kids and sports.”
But the Tooooooon serenade had a sequel, and he couldn’t have been a prouder dad.