Toronto Argonauts

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

IRVING, Texas — Raghib Ramadan Ibrahim Hama Sulaiman Iben Ismail has never been an ordinary guy. On or off the football field.You see, Ismail dances to a melody only he can hear. That's why some call him quirky, others strange. Ismail, a devout Christian, is an introspective man who used to spend his off-seasons sitting on his mother's front porch in Mountaintop, Pa., gently rocking back-and-forth for weeks at a time.

The Rocket — a nickname given to him by a track coach and enhanced by his exploits on the football field — signed a seven-year, $21 million contract with the Cowboys in the off-season. The Rocket debuted with the best game of his career — eight catches, 149 yards and the game-winning touchdown — in the Cowboys' thrilling 41-35 overtime win over Washington. Through six games, he has a team-high 30 catches for 526 yards and three touchdowns. He signed with Dallas because he just wanted to be one of the guys. With Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin and Deion Sanders around, he could do that.


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.

“I just love the kid. I could have taken him home and adopted him,” Valdissari said. “I don't know if he ever had down day." Ismail, though, didn't have the typical collegiate experience. The Rocket wouldn't let him. As a freshman in 1988, The Rocket led the nation in kickoff returns with a 36.1-yard average and two touchdowns as the Fighting Irish won the national championship. The attention only increased the next two years.

Students and professors asked for autographs and other memorabilia. After games, hundreds would wait at Notre Dame's dressing room door for a glimpse of Ismail. They just wanted to pat him on the back. Or shake his hand. Or snap a picture. “In four years, I played with a lot of great athletes like Tim Brown and Jerome Bettis,” St. Louis cornerback Todd Lyght said of his Notre Dame career. “But there's only one name I heard the people chanting in the stands, and that was Rocket's.”

Raghib Ismail never wanted to be the CFL's savior. He simply wanted to play football and build his mother a house. But the CFL had financial problems, and the Toronto Argonauts new owner Bruce McNall and his partners, comedian John Candy and hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky, wanted to make a splash. McNall had done the same thing when he bought the Los Angeles Kings and immediately traded for Gretzky. The Rocket became the highest-profile college player to join the CFL when McNall signed him to a four-year personal-services contract and a one-year contract with Toronto with a one-year option.

The Rocket was ready for the CFL. Ismail wasn't.

The Rocket gave the CFL instant credibility because he was recognized as college football's most charismatic player. And its best. But the contract Ismail signed also called for him to make personal appearances for the team, the CFL and corporate sponsors. “He was just a baby,” said former Toronto general manager Mike McCarthy, “and we put him in the limelight.”

The stress of being a savior took its toll on Ismail. One day, Qadry Ismail saw its effects. “His whole back was covered with stress bumps,” Qadry Ismail said. ... It was too much for my brother to handle.” Equipment manager Danny Webb, who has been with the Argonauts for 15 seasons, said Ismail never adjusted to The Rocket's fame. Webb recalls The Rocket taking off his equipment after open practices. As his teammates would sign autographs, Ismail would slip on a trainer's shirt and sneak away unnoticed. But on the field and in the financial ledgers, The Rocket was everything the league had hoped for.

McCarthy said Toronto's average attendance jumped from 21,000 in 1990 to 38,000 in 1991, when The Rocket became the second player in CFL history to gain more than 3,000 yards in total offense. In the Grey Cup, The Rocket returned a kickoff 87 yards for a touchdown and was named the game's MVP. “It was like a traveling circus. It was like barnstorming with Red Grange in '30s,” McCarthy said. “All of the TV ratings went up, and everywhere we went was a sellout or the best house of the year.” The Rocket's fame, though, suffocated Ismail.

He left the CFL after his second season to join the Los Angeles Raiders.


-- statistics --



Raghib Ismail   Notre Dame
Yr Team C Yds Avg Lg TD
1991 Tor 36 271 7.5 42 3
1992 Tor 34 154 4.5 59 3
Total 2 70 425 6.1 59 6


Yr Team C Yds Avg Lg TD
1991 Tor 64 1,300 20.3 87 9
1992 Tor 36 651 18.1 56 4
Total 2 100 1951 19.5 87 13


    Punt Return  
Yr Team No Yds Avg Lg TD
1991 Tor 48 602 12.5 73 1
1992 Tor 59 614 10.4 74 1
Total 2 107 1,216 11.4 74 2


    Kick Return  
Yr Team No Yds Avg Lg TD
1991 Tor 31 786 25.4 38 0
1992 Tor 43 1,139 26.5 55 0
Total 2 74 1,925 26.0 55 0


-- NFL --



Yr Team C Yds Avg Lg TD
1993 LAR 26 353 13.6 43 1
1994 LAR 34 513 15.1 42 5
1995 Oak 28 491 17.5 73 3
1996 Car 12 214 17.8 51 0
1997 Car 36 419 11.6 59 2
1998 Car 69 1024 14.8 62 8
1999 Dal 80 1097 13.7 76 6
2000 Dal 25 350 14.0 44 1
2001 Dal 53 834 15.7 80 2
Total 9 363 5,295 14.6 80 28


    Kick Return    
Yr Team No Yds Avg Lg TD
1993 LAR 25 605 24.2 66 0
1994 LAR 43 923 21.5 51 0
1995 Oak 36 706 19.6 43 0
1996 Car 5 100 20.0 30 0
1997 Car          
1998 Car          
1999 Dal          
2000 Dal          
2001 Dal          
Total 9 109 2,334 21.4 50 0