Toon trying to shape own legacy at Wisconsin

April, 7, 2009
4/07/09
11:40
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

MADISON, Wis. -- The music catches you off guard.

Ringback tones are common with cell phones these days. If you call several of Nick Toon's coaches at Wisconsin, you'll hear House of Pain's "Jump Around" -- Wisconsin's unofficial fight song between the third and fourth quarters -- before they answer.

 
  David Stluka/Getty Images
  Nick Toon caught 17 passes for 257 yards in 2008.

If you call Toon's cell, you hear ... Michael Jackson's "Black or White." Really?

"Oh, yeah, I love Michael Jackson," Toon says after answering.

Toon is his own man with his own unique tastes in music, food and other subjects. These facts need to be pointed out because he will always be fighting an uphill battle for independence at Wisconsin.

Here's his problem: He plays wide receiver for Wisconsin and has "Toon" on the back of his jersey. Most Badger fans don't struggle to name that Toon.

Nick's father, Al ,starred for the Badgers from 1982-84, setting school records for career receiving yards (2,103), career receptions (131), career receiving touchdowns (19), single-season receptions (54 in 1984) and single-season receiving yards (881 in 1983). Al Toon's marks have since been eclipsed by Lee Evans and others, but the three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver leaves a lasting legacy at the school.

Now another Toon is forging his own path in Madison.

"I've grown up with this pressure," Nick Toon said. "I was born into the situation I'm in, which is not a bad thing. It feels normal to me because I don't know any different. I guess you argue that the pressure may be a little bit different at Wisconsin because my dad did play here, but I don't think it'll be any different anywhere else in the country.

"My dad is a pretty widely known athlete. He's a great receiver. The comparisons are going to be made. I just try to do my own thing."

And he's doing it well this spring.

Toon has stood out this spring in an improved Badgers receiving corps and should earn strong consideration for a starting job come September. After logging more playing time toward the end of last season, the 6-foot-3, 207-pound sophomore is working with the first-team offense in spring drills.

At a recent practice, Toon made several impressive catches, and made a leaping grab for a 5-yard touchdown in Saturday's scrimmage.

"I'm really glad we've got him," offensive coordinator Paul Chryst said. "If he keeps working and keeps growing, he's got a chance to be pretty good."

Despite his famous bloodlines and an eye-catching high school career in nearby Middleton, Wis., Toon redshirted in 2007. He showed promise early last spring but a hamstring injury shut him down.

Badgers coaches flirted with the idea of using Toon at the H-back position, a spot occupied by All-American Travis Beckum last fall. Unable to run for most of spring ball because of the hamstring, Toon put on the necessary weight.

"At the end of the spring, I was probably 228, 230," he said. "I just wanted to show [the coaches] if that's where they wanted me to be, I might be able to do that. But I couldn't hold the weight like Travis or Lance [Kendricks] does.

"I couldn't move and didn't feel like the same player."

Toon is back down to around 210, a weight he hopes to maintain for the fall. He didn't play much in the first half of last season, recording just three receptions, albeit one for 28 yards against Penn State, in the team's first eight games.

Things began to shift against Michigan State, as Toon caught three passes for 44 yards, including a 26-yarder. He recorded multiple receptions in Wisconsin's final five games, including his first career touchdown, a 26-yarder, against Cal Poly.

"The turning point for me was probably Michigan State," Toon said. "I felt like a real player after that game."

He's become more comfortable with his duties this spring.

"I can play full speed as opposed to having to think a lot when I'm out there," he said. "When you don't have to think about what you have to do, you can think about making a big play or making a big block or running a route to beat the defense instead of following a line that you've just memorized on paper.

"That separates just the average player from a great player."

Al Toon certainly fell into the latter category. But the former New York Jets star didn't push his son into football.

In fact, Al, who retired from the NFL at age 29 following numerous concussions, encouraged Nick to play other sports and was hesitant about him starting football in middle school.

"He's not the type of personality that forces things on me," Nick said. "He was always pretty hands off and took the do-what-you-want-to-do attitude. I naturally was drawn to the position. Obviously, when your dad does that for a living, it intrigues a lot of people. And I was always interested."

Al became more involved as Nick's football career progressed. He attended Saturday's scrimmage and liked what he saw.

"He helps me out with the little things that not all the coaches teach me," Nick said, "some of the tricks of the trade that he's learned from playing the position. I try to listen if he has advice for me. He knows what he's talking about. But I try not to worry so much about what other people are saying as far as comparisons go.

"I'm not my dad. I'm a different person."

Still not convinced? Just call his cell.

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