Rocket Ismail - Wide Receiver - 1991-92 - Notre Dame
Rocket comes to Canada 1991 - CFL - ESPN website:
In '91, the consensus No. 1 pick was one Raghib "Rocket" Ismail, Heisman Trophy runner-up in 1990 to Ty Detmer of BYU. These are the ways to get people to like a protagonist: 1) give him extraordinary abilities; 2) make him likeable and pocket-sized; 3) have him endure underserved misfortune. Rocket didn't get the Heisman after what he did, which was to carry Notre Dame's offense and special teams at 5-10, 170 pounds. After he lost the Heisman, he also ran back a punt 91 yards for an apparent score on the penultimate play of that season's Orange Bowl national championship game, but the play was called back on a phantom clipping call.
But, as far as the NFL Draft was concerned, the fact it had happened couldn't be called back out of people's heads and memory. People would subconsciously get all that and that it would counterbalance the fact he'd gone to Notre Dame - some people would love him for that fact, and some would hate him for it - and had an Islamic name at the height of Desert Storm. I knew something about this, having met Rocket and done an acceptable story on him, Notre Dame and his family, as a 1989 cover story for Sports Illustrated. Later, when the Notre Dame press guide came out, in the thumbnail player bios under "Person You Most Admire," Raghib said, "Ralph Wiley, Sports Illustrated. Later, after the Orange Bowl, when he called me and said, "My family is destitute. I need to go pro. Will you help me?" I wrestled with it for about two seconds. By then I had the expertise. Team Rocket was devised to get the Rocket a worthy deal, not a typical NFL deal at the time, for a total of less than 3 percent of the contract price. At the time, Jerry Rice, the best position player in the league, was making about $790,000 a year. What could a rookie wide receiver who was projected as a 'tweener and who was "not a quarterback" expect? What could he expect from the New England Patriots, owners of the to pick, who were playing on artificial turf, and not anything like the current model in any way, shape or form, up and down the line?
Well, we knew Sam Jankovich was a first-year GM with the Patriots, and a former AD at Miami, where he'd brought in Jimmy Johnson, who was now beginning his glory years with the Cowboys, with Jerry Jones, a man who didn't mind paying the talent -- suffice it to say, we knew where Sam would trade the pick once we forced it. But then another wild card named Bruce McNall came into the mix, having bit hard on the A&P. SI had done a story on the construction of Team Rocket before the draft. There were more strategy meetings and low-profile visits. Rocket signed with McNall and the CFL's Toronto Argonauts for $3.5 million a year, under a personal services contract; like Wayne Gretzky, he was a speciality item, sent from one country to another to help establish one national game to the other land.
Rocket Ismail ended up being drafted by his preferred NFL team, the Raiders, in the fourth round. He ended up playing for the Raiders and the Cowboys, as well as the Carolina Panthers. The final contract Rocket signed, with the Cowboys, at the start of this decade, was worth just about what the first one he signed with the Toronto Argonauts was worth. And that draft was why it takes the full 15 minutes for each pick now. After the Rocket signed in Canada, NFL team execs, both paranoid and imperious to an alarming degree, called the pick they had in mind, "Are you sure you haven't been talking to Canada?" They didn't know what to do when faced with a competing bidder. The dirty little secret that's not such a secret is that the league is usually a monopoly.
When Rocket asked me, "I'm coming out. Can you help me?" I thought about it, I thought about my protective little cocoon of "journalism," how much I liked and admired him and his brothers Qadry and Sulaiman, and how they were living in abject poverty, and how much I knew about the machinations of the NFL, and I said, "Yes, I can help you." So I did.
The scenario? It was worth a book. It came down to both days of the 1991 draft. After Rocket had signed in Canada on the day of the draft, sort of deflating and enervating the NFL proceedings, a guy named Fred Edelstein said at the time Rock would "rue the day!" he spurned the NFL. If anybody was going to do any rueing, it would be Edelstein, not Ismail. One of my occasional sources and friendly acquaintances, Leigh Steinberg, was sitting at home in the Bay Area with the two guys who became the No. 1 and 2 picks, Miami tackle Russell Maryland, who went to Dallas, and safety Eric Turner, who went second to Cleveland.
Leigh said something about how American football players should stay in America as his two clients sat there stoically, with their necks spilling over their white shirt collars like biscuit dough. ESPN's Mark Schwarz, I believe, then asked, "But both these guys put together are going to get about half of what the Rocket's getting." And both of those massive bull necks cracked to the side at the same time ... Leigh chuckled and said, "You've put quite a hurdle in front of me." I sat on a bed somewhere and laughed and put my fist threw a straw boater.
Talk about heady times. Rocket got his. Free agency came in behind him.
Cowboys' Ismail prefers to fly
out of radar range Courtesy - Jean-Jacques Taylor Dallas Morning News
At Notre Dame the Rocket became one of the most electrifying players in school history. He averaged 61.8 yards per touchdown and became the first player in NCAA history to return two kickoffs for touchdowns in two separate games. “The best Notre Dame football player ever was Paul Hornung,” said Roger Valdissari, who spent nearly 38 years working in Notre Dame's athletic department. “He played fullback, quarterback, defense, kicked extra points and punted. “But as far as pure excitement, Rocket was the man. Rocket had a flair about him and because he was so small, people really pulled for him.” Ismail and his mother shared a close relationship with Valdissari. He frequently used Valdissari's office as a haven. They talked about academics. And football. And religion. And politics.
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