Wisconsin plays a Toon one last time
Successful son of Badgers receiving star hopes to follow father's footsteps to NFL career
LOS ANGELES - Wide receiver Nick Toon had a big name to live up to when he came to Wisconsin. His father, Al Toon, played receiver for the Badgers from 1982-84, catching 131 passes for 2,103 yards and 19 touchdowns before going on to star with the New York Jets for eight seasons.
'I do think that there was an expectation coming in and playing at Wisconsin,' Nick Toon said. 'I don't think it would've been any different anywhere else. But it is what it is. My dad is my dad, and he's always been my dad, so that's the only thing I know.'
Over the last four years, Nick Toon has done a lot to prove that bloodlines do not lie. He has caught 162 passes for 2343 yards and 17 TDs, with 55 receptions for 822 yards and nine TDs in 2011, heading into Monday's 2 p.m. Rose Bowl versus Oregon.
'Nick Toon is one of the best receivers in the country,' Badgers quarterback Russell Wilson says.
Adds offensive coordinator Paul Chryst: 'Nick is a very talented player. A big part of our offense. For us to be as good as we can be, we need Nick to be as good as he can be.'
Throughout his childhood, Toon says his father made being a parent his first priority, and Al Toon did not neglect his son when it came to advice about how to play wide receiver.
'He's my father first,' Toon says. 'He's provided fatherly advice and direction as far as life goes. A parent is a life coach first. My dad and my mom, too, have done a great job at that.
'As far as football goes, he's been a great resource for me and given me advice that maybe not everybody knows. He played in the NFL for eight years, he was one of the best to do it, and he's got a little bit of insight that some people don't have. I've been very fortunate to have that resource.'
The Toons never pushed their son to play football. Nick Toon says that is a big reason why he has retained a love for the game that many children of star athletes lose.
'Neither of my parents were very pushy. They didn't force me to play sports, and I think that's part of the reason I've lasted as long as I have,' Nick Toon says. 'A lot of kids nowadays are pressured into playing sports and doing things that sometimes they don't have an interest in doing.'
Nick Toon always had a desire to follow in his father's footsteps, however. And he had the natural abilities to carry on the family tradition.
Toon says that his greatest strength is having Venus flytrap-like hands.
'First and foremost, I catch the ball really well,' he says. 'I catch the ball in my hands, and that's kind of a lost art. A lot of guys nowadays, for whatever reason, use their body to catch the ball. A receiver's primary job is to catch the ball. I do a pretty good job of that.'
The 6-3, 220-pound redshirt senior also has the ability to run textbook routes, along with the speed to beat his cover man.
'I'm a good route runner and a polished route runner,' Toon says. 'I also have pretty good speed. I don't get to show it as much as some other receivers do in other offenses. But that's the way our offense is set up. And at the end of the day, I've still had a lot of success in our offense, and I wouldn't have had it any other way.'
Though Nick Toon has had an extra year to rack up stats, while at Wisconsin he has caught 31 more passes for 240 more yards than his father and is just two TDs behind him. The younger Toon has a chance to equal or surpass his father's TD mark in the Rose Bowl.
The Ducks' secondary has three young cornerbacks. Redshirt freshmen Terrance Mitchell and Troy Hill and true freshman Ifo Ekpre-Olomu have been forced into action because of Cliff Harris' suspension/departure and the injury limiting senior Anthony Gildon. Does Toon think he can exploit the Ducks' young corners?
'Definitely,' he says. 'I've been doing this for five years. The older you get, the more experienced you are and the more knowledgeable you are about what's going on on the field and how to take advantage of some of the things that some of the younger guys may not know.'
After he left Wisconsin, Al Toon, 6-4, 205 pounds, made an even bigger name for himself in the NFL. Playing with the Jets from 1985-92, he caught 517 passes for 6,605 yards and 31 TDs.
When this season ends, Nick Toon hopes to earn a spot in the NFL the same way he carved out a niche at Wisconsin.
'I know I have the tools and ability to go on and have a lot of success at the next level,' Nick Toon says. 'If it's in God's will for me to go and stay healthy and play a long time, I know I have the capability to do so.'
The NFL may be his dream, but Nick Toon says he will keep his focus on playing receiver for the Badgers for one more week. If Wisconsin wins the Rose Bowl, Toon will have accomplished something his father never did.
Surpassing Al Toon was never Nick Toon's goal, though. Just to be thought of alongside his father was enough.
'My dad was a great player,' Toon says. 'And to even be mentioned in the same breath as him is an honor. That's something I've wanted to do since I was younger.'