Character study: Family comes first on Al Toon’s full plate
Ask Al Toon, co-owner of Olson Toon Landscaping, if football is what brought him to Madison, and the answer might surprise you: “I came here for an education,” he corrects, “and I ran track and played football.”
Toon, 50, was blessed with athletic prowess. Track and field was his first specialty, specifically the high hurdles and the triple jump. He qualified for the 1984 Olympics but was injured one week before the Olympic Trials.
“Luckily,” he said, “I had football to fall back on.” Luckily for Badger football fans, he had football to fall back on.
A matter of degree
The former UW-Madison football standout and three-time NFL Pro Bowler with the New York Jets could have chosen a post-football career as a television sports analyst, but in 1992, when he retired from football at the age of 29 (forced by at least nine concussions over his eight-year career), he and his wife already had three of their four children. “I wanted my kids to grow up normally,” Toon said. “That football career was over.” They came back to Madison, where Toon would pursue something larger and more valuable in his mind than any NFL career: He finally earned his college degree.
“I took classes throughout my [NFL] career,” Toon said, “but just one at a time. It was a slow process.” Admittedly, he didn’t need a degree at that point, but it was a personal goal of his that had followed him around “like a big, gray cloud.” When he finally earned his degree in 1995 from the School of Human Ecology at UW-Madison, he was the first in his family to graduate from college.
After dabbling in the student-housing market, he became a licensed Realtor and eventually started a real estate company with several friends. After selling off his student housing, his interests turned to commercial real estate and investing.
In the late 1990s, he and Larry Mialik, another former Badger and NFL player, invested in a couple of Burger King franchises. He now has an interest in about 27 Burger Kings throughout southern Wisconsin and the Fox Valley. For a short while, he was an absentee owner and self-franchisee with Taco Bell, but sold that interest. “It was too stressful,” he said of not being able to be on-site to monitor things. Meanwhile, he still owns commercial real estate in Madison, Oshkosh, and Janesville.
With his business ventures thriving, landscaping, it would seem, would hardly be on Toon’s radar. In fact, it wasn’t. His current role as 50% owner of Olson Toon Landscaping was the result of a relationship forged several years ago with Steve Olson, who was handling Toon’s landscaping. The more Toon learned about Olson’s company, the more he liked it, which led to the eventual partnership agreement.
“[Olson Toon] is one of the first businesses where I’ve had to deal with employees down in the trenches,” Toon said. “It’s been fun, exhausting, anxious, stressful, exciting, and rewarding. Would I do it again? Absolutely!” he insisted. “It’s a family business,” he said, “and I’m the adopted partner-child.”
His own family hails from Newport News, Va., where his mother was a welding instructor, working mostly on submarines, and his father was foreman in a ship-painting department who also happened to work on the smokestack for television’s famed Love Boat. While he and his two sisters shared plenty of responsibilities at home, Toon recalls always looking beyond where he was to what could be. “I’m never satisfied. Complacency is not who I am.”
Surprisingly, Toon says he was “painfully shy” for most of his early life, until he was forced out of his shell by the flurry of media interviews that began in college when he became a projected first-round NFL draft pick. Behind the quiet façade was an excellent listener whose analytic nature helped keep him on the straight and narrow as he achieved athletic acclaim with the Jets, and as the trappings of fame pulled and tempted him from all sides. “I didn’t want a negative article written about me,” he admitted, “about going bankrupt, or being in jail, or doing something illegal.
“It’s about character,” he continued. “Be a good person. Do the right thing.”
Toon’s biggest challenge as he transitioned into the big leagues, he acknowledged, was a lack of exposure to business and money management, although his analytical skills helped. “I was always in search of people I could learn from and trust who had my best interests at heart so I could learn how to fish on my own and not have someone fish for me. I don’t like to be dependent on others.”
Throughout his NFL career, he remained fiscally conservative. “I told my agent I just wanted my money to be there when I was done, then I’d spend time learning to invest it. That’s why I still had the majority of what I earned when I retired from football,” he said.
Happily married for 27 years, Toon makes it clear that his family means more to him than any trophy or any dollar he’s ever earned. While he appreciates the luxuries he has accumulated, it’s his family and his faith — not money — that make him happiest. “My wife and I brought four lovely kids into the world, and it’s my responsibility to assure they’ll be responsible citizens,” he said. Their three athletic daughters have excelled in college volleyball, and son Nick, another former UW Badger, is in his second year in the NFL, playing for the New Orleans Saints. “I’m so proud of all my kids,” he said, “but I worry about them every day.”
As a public figure, Toon takes being a good role model to heart. “But there are negative role models as well,” he cautioned. “I think you have to understand where they come from and why. Life is a balance. You can’t have the satisfaction or appreciation for winning if you haven’t also experienced and appreciated losing.”
As the sports psychologist of the family, Toon offers other words of advice. “If I want to be better than the next person, I have to understand what’s going on, no matter what the challenge may be,” he said. “Things don’t just happen; opportunities are earned.”
His latest opportunity, as an investor in RoughSportswear.com, an athletic sportswear company founded by friend and former Badger basketball star Trent Jackson, will hopefully prove to be a successful one.
“I have a lot on my plate right now,” Toon said of all the irons in his fire, “but I never close a door to opportunity.
“I’m also not playing Monopoly. I don’t want to buy the world. I just try to team up with people whom I trust that are all moving in the same direction and have the same goals, and I’ll do that until I take my last breath.”
In the end, it’s all about character.
“I hope my tombstone will one day read: ‘He was a good father, a good husband, and a good person.’”
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