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WHEN AL TOON GRADUATED FROM WISCONSIN IN 1985, HE HELD ALL THE SCHOOL'S major receiving records. Two decades later his son, Nick, starred as a receiver at Middleton High, about a 15-minute drive from UW's campus. Naturally, people began drawing comparisons between the two, even before Nick followed his father's path to Madison. So does the younger Toon ever tire of hearing questions about his famous dad, who was an All-Pro with the New York Jets and was inducted into the Badgers Hall of Fame in 1995?
"It's not realistic to expect people not to ask or know about my dad," Toon says. "It gives me something to strive for. I wouldn't change anything."
Certainly Nick knew he was setting himself up for comparison by coming to Wisconsin, which was hardly his only option. Through his success at Middleton—he was rated among the nation's top 25 receivers by Rivals.com—Nick garnered the attention of Boston College, Florida State, Iowa, Michigan and Notre Dame. In the end, he followed his bloodline.
"When you start playing football, you always end up referencing [what] your dad [did]," says Al. "It's not a new concept for Nick. The way he's grown up, coming to Wisconsin wasn't going to change him."
Upon enrolling in the fall of 2007, Toon began working with receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander to become the best wideout he could be, even while redshirting that first season. "We started off trying to make him a complete player and build his own history separate from his father," Alexander recalls.
It helped that by both Nick's and Al's admissions, they have had separate approaches to playing wide receiver. Al says his track background made for a game premised on finesse and refinement, whereas Nick is the more "football-minded" player, more likely to physically take on a defender.
Nick found a valuable place in Wisconsin's run-heavy offense during his sophomore season. He had a penchant for highlight-worthy catches (his 54 catches and 805 receiving yards were both team highs) and also excelled as a run blocker. "Playing wide receiver for us takes patience, discipline and some mental toughness," Alexander says. "Success is all about how you do one-on-one when the defense is stacking the box, and [Nick has] been successful with the big-play opportunities he's had."
Toon's production was hampered in 2010 by a nagging turf-toe injury, which he says is fully healed. He acknowledges that the injury ended up allowing time for additional maturation, which Toon says shaped his role this off-season as a leader for a young Wisconsin receiving corps. "I've considered myself a leader since I stepped on campus. And being a fifth-year senior, you take on that role," he says. "I'm the oldest guy in the receiving room and have tried to pass down things you can only learn by doing."
With a season on par with his 2009 campaign, Toon would join his dad in the top 10 of a half-dozen receiving categories at Wisconsin and stake a claim as one of the better wideouts in the Big Ten.
To Al, Nick's success on the field has been secondary to his son's overall experience in Madison. "It's been great for me to see the games, but the most important thing is that Nick's enjoyed himself," says the elder Toon. "He does joke about breaking all my records, and I say, Go for it. That's what they're there for."