In order to make it as a skill position player in the NFL, you need certain intangibles.
One intangible that separates men from boys is speed.
True speed can mean the difference between an incompletion or a touchdown.
Or, it might lead to a missed tackle for a crucial first down.
Of all the receivers in NFL history that had speed, one of the most exciting was Raghib Ismail.
Fitting for his position, Raghib was nicknamed the “Rocket.”
ND vs Wisconsin at noon today, and this is the cover Sports Illustrated on this day in 1989. This is Rocket Ismail’s first SI cover.#whodoyoucollect #thehobby #SportsCards #gradeagazines #gamedaysigns #NotreDame #Wisconsin #ndvswisc #GameDay #collegegameday #Chicago #gradedcomics pic.twitter.com/gWKb1ZwGWQ
— CGC Sports Illustrated (@CGC_SI) September 25, 2021
Having Ismail on the receiving end of a pass or a kick return was a dangerous proposition.
One step, and he could make you look foolish.
Ismail’s fame blew up in college.
His star was even more pronounced when he spurned the NFL for the CFL.
Ultimately, Ismail’s hype was not as lofty as predicted when he returned to play in the NFL.
This is the story of “Rocket” Ismail.
Growing Up and Early College Interest
Raghib Ramadian Ismail was born on November 18, 1969 in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
When he was still young, the Ismail family moved to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.
Friends and family saw Ismail’s athletic talent and speed at a young age.
By the time he reached middle school, Ismail was already envisioning a life in college.
Specifically, the father of one of Ismail’s friends would frequently tell him stories of Notre Dame players and noteworthy games.
The stories would always end with the same line, directed at a young Ismail.
“And you’re going to be there one day. And you’re going to be legendary.”
Ismail’s legend began to grow in 8th grade.
That’s when one of his track coaches gave Ismail the nickname that would stick for the rest of his life.
While teaching Ismail and fellow sprinters to stay low and drive out of the starter’s block, coach Jim Cross saw Ismail’s form and was enthusiastic.
“‘Hey, look at that! That’s it! The kid came out of the blocks like a rocket! That’s what we want!’”
Ismail added, “It just so happened I was fast and so it stuck.”
Ismail began to see his college plans develop before his junior year at Elmer L. Meyers Junior/Senior High School.
That summer, Ismail attended a football camp at Syracuse University.
As part of the camp, the Orangemen coaches timed their campers in the 40-yard dash.
Ismail had previously been timed in the 40 as a freshman and the result was a 4.7.
The first time he ran the 40 at the Syracuse camp, the coaches stared in disbelief at their stopwatches.
Rocket Ismail dude was fast and single handily beat my Wolverines. pic.twitter.com/YJ4VjBtNga
— Bearded Raider (@bowman233) March 31, 2020
Then they calmly asked Ismail to run it again.
After complying, the coaches once again congregated together.
They looked at their times and then at Ismail. By now, he was curious and asked the coaches what his time was.
The stunned men nearly shouted their response in glee. Ismail had run a 4.3.
“Everyone. The whole stands. I say the whole stands, that might have been 50 people,” said Ismail. “But, it was such a big deal. Everybody was like, “Oh my god.” It would be the equivalent of a high schooler running closer to 4.1 now. It was unheard of. Like”4.3. What the heck?” I remember (the coaches) were like, “OK. We have to go.”
Holtz Comes Calling
The word was out on Ismail.
During his junior and senior years at Meyers High, an impressive list of schools came to watch him play.
They included Penn State, Notre Dame and Maryland.
There was one slight hitch in the recruiting process though, at least according to Ismail.
At the time, he was diminutive, although the game program listed him at 5’10” and 170 pounds.
As Ismail tells it, that wasn’t close to the truth.
“I didn’t weigh 100 lbs until my sophomore year of high school. So I’m tiny. As a matter of fact — I’m sorry — I didn’t weigh 100 lbs until after my sophomore year,” said Ismail. “My high school coach wouldn’t put me in the game until after the first half just for safety reasons. Like, “Man we just gotta make sure this cat doesn’t get killed.
I wasn’t 5’10” until I was about 22. I probably was more like 5’7” or 5’8”. My senior year, the heaviest I weighed was 166 lbs. When you look at that compared to everybody else, that was crazy. My brother Qadry was a fullback. He was a legitimate, 5’10” 170 lbs.”
The truth was exposed when Irish coach Lou Holtz came to meet with Ismail at school.
“One day, they call both of us (he and Qadry) out of class to meet coach Holtz,” said Ismail. “You know how you get trained for when you meet somebody you shake their hand and look them in the eye. When we walked into the room, I walked in first and my brother, who was bigger than me, was right behind me.
Coach Holtz walked up to me and said, “You must be Qadry. So nice to meet you.” And I told him, “No, coach. I’m Rocket.” When I said that, I looked at him and I could see his eyes dilate. He was probably so upset with himself for making that mistake. I’m sure he was kicking himself thinking he messed up our first meeting.”
However, things worked out well for Holtz and the Rocket.
“…after that, it was a great relationship. You know how coach Holtz always had those one liners. He would say to me, “Son, you could come to Notre Dame to be a part of something truly special. But even if you don’t, Notre Dame is still going to achieve great things without you.”
Ismail wasn’t about to miss out on all those ‘great things.’
As soon as he could, the Rocket signed his letter of intent and enrolled at Notre Dame.
Irish Triple Threat and a National Championship in 1988
As it turns out, Holtz wasn’t making an empty pitch about great things happening at Notre Dame.
In 1988, Ismail joined an already stacked team.
He was used as a receiver and a return man on punts and kicks.
As a receiver, Ismail caught 12 passes for 331 yards and two touchdowns in ‘88.
As a return specialist, he had 12 kick returns for 433 yards and two more scores and five punt returns for 72 yards.
Ismail led the NCAA with a 36.1 yards per kickoff return average.
— Forbes SportsMoney (@ForbesSports) October 9, 2021
Even the star-studded Irish players couldn’t help but marvel at their teammate’s speed.
“When we lined Rocket up in the backfield and I had a strong pitch right or an option, sometimes on the strong pitch I would pitch it to him and I would watch him run instead of carrying out my fake because he looked so smooth running and I wished I was that fast,” said Tony Rice, Ismail’s quarterback at Notre Dame. “Just an enjoyable person to watch on the field. Off the field, great dad, great family man. But on the field he is a rocket. That name suits him well.”
Notre Dame ended the ‘88 season 11-0 and played the West Virginia Mountaineers in the Fiesta Bowl.
During the second quarter of the game, Rice tossed a 29-yard touchdown to Ismail to put the Irish up 23-3.
Notre Dame would go on to win 34-21.
The victory put the Irish at 12-0 and gave them the necessary clout to be named national champions.
“Being a part of that team, and the national championship followed a couple of months later, so playing for a legendary coach, playing at a legendary university, just being in that atmosphere, being in that environment was definitely a blessing,” said Ismail in 2019.
Almost a Hero in the 1991 Orange Bowl
In 1989, Holtz had the Rocket add rushing duties to his workload.
His talent was evident after posting 27 receptions for 535 yards, 64 rushing attempts for 478 yards and two touchdowns, 20 kick returns for 502 yards and two more scores and seven punt returns for 113 yards and a fifth touchdown.
That season, Ismail garnered a consensus All-American nod for his efforts.
Notre Dame finished ‘89 12-1 and beat the University of Colorado in the Orange Bowl 31-6.
— ExeterTwp PA FB (@ExeterTwpFB) August 2, 2015
Ismail broke open the scoring in the third quarter on a 35-yard touchdown run.
The following season, the Rocket was all the rage in college football.
With the stands full and millions watching every game on TV, Ismail posted incredible numbers.
On the way to a unanimous All-American honor, he ran the pigskin 67 times for 537 yards and three touchdowns, caught 32 passes for 699 yards and two touchdowns, returned 14 kicks for 336 yards and a score and returned 13 punts for 151 yards.
After a slightly disappointing 9-3 record in ‘90, Notre Dame faced Colorado again in the Orange Bowl.
The game would prove to be one of the most exciting bowls in history.
With the Buffs up 10-9 in the fourth quarter, Colorado punted to Ismail.
The Rocket caught the ball and proceeded to blaze 92 yards to the house for the go-ahead touchdown.
In the final minute of the 1991 Orange Bowl, Raghib “Rocket” Ismail’s crazy punt return was taken off the board, and @CUBuffsFootball claimed their first national title in school history.
#ThrowbackThursday | #OrangeBowlVault 🍊🏈 | #CFB150 1️⃣5️⃣0️⃣ pic.twitter.com/LXdxptBZba
— Capital One Orange Bowl (@OrangeBowl) September 12, 2019
Only 43 seconds remained and it looked like the Irish would leave as victors.
Unfortunately, Irish fans and television viewers saw a yellow flag near midfield.
Notre Dame was called for clipping on the play and that nullified Ismail’s touchdown.
Time would run out on the Irish and they ended up losing the game.
After the season, Ismail would be named the 1990 Walter Camp Player of the Year, as well as the Sporting News’ College Player of the Year.
Controversially, he would finish as the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy to BYU quarterback Ty Detmer.
With all the accolades he could ever need as a collegian, Ismail skipped his senior year to enter the NFL draft.
Ismail Shuns the NFL and Heads to Toronto
The 1990 New England Patriots were terrible.
In their only season with Rod Rust as head coach, the team imploded and ended the year 1-15.
As much as the record hurt, the prospect of selecting Ismail with the first pick in the 1991 Draft was solace.
The only problem was, Ismail and his management team wanted money, serious money.
“Team Rocket,” as they called themselves, were looking for a deal in the neighborhood of five years and $14.5 million.
Not willing to deal with the headache of negotiations, the Patriots traded with Dallas for the pick.
However, upon hearing Ismail’s money demand, even the typically free spending Jerry Jones wasn’t on board.
That left the option open for Ismail and his crew to pursue their back door plan.
While Ismail was speaking with NFL teams in public, in private he was close to landing a mega deal in Toronto.
In other words, the Canadian Football League.
Raghib (Rocket) Ismail was born on 18 November 1969. Immortalized by his punt-return TD in the 1991 Grey Cup game, Rocket's sensational signing with the #Argos on NFL draft day and his brief 2-season tenure (1991-92) came to symbolize the sparkle of the McNall-Gretzy-Candy years. pic.twitter.com/f9is9cQG4e
— Bygone 🏈 Boatmen (@BygoneBoatmen) November 18, 2019
Normally, any top NFL draft prospect would not entertain the thought of signing with a CFL team (save Tom Cousineau years earlier).
The money in the CFL is nowhere near the amount NFL teams can pay.
However, that wasn’t a problem for Bruce McNall.
McNall was the owner of the Los Angeles Kings NHL team.
He had paid mega dollars to lure superstar Wayne Gretzky from Canada to the Kings in 1988.
In 1991, McNall, Gretzky and actor John Candy bought the Argonauts for $5 million.
Candy was a huge sports fan and, during one of their first ownership meetings, mentioned the team needed to do something big.
That something was Ismail.
“This franchise meant more to John than it meant to anybody, including myself even,” McNall told VICE Sports. “It was a childhood dream come true for him. When I brought up the idea of Rocket, his enthusiasm went through the roof. It just encouraged me even more to make sure I got this deal done if I could.”
McNall and his co-owners were excited over the prospect of landing perhaps the biggest college football star in the land.
John Candy, Raghib "The Rocket" Ismail and The Great One just playing some football in the backyard pic.twitter.com/egCDYYD2ic
— 70s 80s Retro Awesomeville (@retro_70s) February 17, 2021
The group was so excited, they were willing to pony up for Ismail’s request of a four-year, $18 million guarantee (that would only be part of his deal).
As the two sides negotiated over the course of five weeks, it began to occur to Toronto GM Mike McCarthy that they were actually going to sign Ismail.
“I’m thinking that we’re going to give this kid the largest contract in the history of football the way they’re talking about things,” said McCarthy. “We had to convince Ray Newman (Ismail’s agent) that this offer is real. We would fly Rocket out to meet with Bruce and Ray. I said to Ray that I’m the middleman, not the money guy. For comparison, I sent all of the salaries of the highest first-round picks in the last five drafts to Bruce.”
Finally, the two sides reached an agreement.
Ismail would get a contract for four years, $26.2 million, $18.2 million guaranteed.
30 Years Ago Today: Notre Dame WR “Rocket” Ismail, the expected No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft, signs with the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts owned by Bruce McNall, Wayne Gretzky and John Candy.
4 years, $18M guaranteed.
Plays half deal after McNall hits financial trouble. ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/ngjjdWo8Ho
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) April 20, 2021
The Rocket’s base salary in 1991 would be $4.5 million.
There were also sweeteners for Ismail to receive money based on the size of the crowd during Argonauts home games and the opportunity to be a team co-owner.
The thrill of signing Ismail was palpable.
“They came to an agreement, they got Rocket on a plane to Los Angeles to see Bruce and sign the deal. It was announced on ESPN by Chris Berman the morning of the draft,” said McCarthy.
McNall later shared that he was willing to pay Ismail his record contract because he also believed the Rocket’s presence in the CFL would benefit the entire league.
“As you well know, if I can get find a way to get around things, I will,” said McNall, laughing. “[The CFL] was a Mickey Mouse play. Next to the NHL, which I was used to, all of the other [CFL] owners were so thrilled at the idea of being able to get attention to their teams. Every time Rocket played in their arenas, selling out their arenas, how much difficulty do you think it was? They made a fortune.”
Ismail and Toronto Win a Championship, then nosedive
Unlike the Patriots in ‘90, Ismail was not joining a pitiful team in Toronto.
The 1990 Argonauts finished 10-8 and lost in the playoffs.
In 1991, Ismail wasn’t the only big name on the Toronto roster.
Michael “Pinball” Clemons was the league’s defending Most Outstanding Player and D.K. Smith had 1,826 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns in ‘90.
During the ‘91 season, Ismail took off like…a rocket.
He caught 64 passes for 1,300 yards and nine scores. He also rushed for 271 yards and three more touchdowns.
During his first game with the team, Ismail scored on a 73-yard reverse.
The Argonauts ended the season 13-5 and a first-place finish in the East division.
In the Grey Cup, Toronto and Calgary were in a tight game until the fourth quarter.
That’s when the Rocket took a kickoff 87 yards for a score to help the Argonauts pull away.
The end result was a 36-21 victory.
“Rocket” Ismail wearing an Electric Circus hat with Pinball Clemons at the Skydome is the most 1990s Toronto thing possible. pic.twitter.com/Bx6Ct4moYL
— Morgan Cameron Ross (@Morgan_C_Ross) April 6, 2021
Ismail was named the game’s MVP.
In short, his first season in the CFL was a dream come true for everyone, especially Ismail.
“It was like something in sports lore that nobody would believe, like a bad movie,” McNall said. “But it was absolutely true. Here’s a guy that comes and does everything he’s supposed to do and then wins the Grey Cup by running back a [kickoff] for a touchdown. It was pretty crazy.”
If the 1991 season was a dream, the ‘92 season was a nightmare.
That year, Ismail only collected 36 receptions for 651 yards, four touchdowns, 154 rushing yards and three more touchdowns.
Even worse, Ismail was reportedly part of a sideline brawl with the Calgary Stampeders where he was accused of stomping on an opponent’s helmeted face.
Toronto went 6-12 in ‘92 and it was obvious that the Ismail experiment was done.
McNall was losing money and the Rocket luster had faded.
“We just couldn’t sustain the excitement is the best way to put it,” McNall said.
Once the 1992 season concluded, Toronto released Ismail.
He was free to return to the States and the happily awaiting NFL.
If there was one thing late Raiders owner Al Davis loved, it was speed.
During his tenure as owner, Davis would frequently take chances on former speedsters and draft projects who just happened to blaze.
After Ismail signed with Toronto in ‘91, Davis played maverick again and drafted the Rocket during the fourth round of the 1991 NFL Draft.
He was not guaranteed to ever see Ismail in a Raider uniform, but Davis took a chance anyway.
His foresight paid off when the Argonauts released Ismail in ‘92.
Since LA still owned his rights, Ismail reported for duty after signing a much smaller two-year, $3 million deal.
— AFL Godfather🏴☠️👓🏈 (@NFLMAVERICK) November 18, 2020
As an NFL rookie, the Rocket had 26 receptions for 353 yards and only one touchdown.
That season, the Raiders went 10-6 and defeated the Broncos 42-24 in the Wild Card game before succumbing to the Bills 29-23 in the Divisional round.
In 1994, the Raiders finished 9-7 and missed the postseason.
Ismail improved on his ‘93 numbers with 34 catches for 513 yards and five scores.
Part of the reason for his improvement was getting on the same page with LA quarterback Jeff Hostetler.
“I understood how I saw a route run,” Ismail said in ‘94. “But what I really needed to know was how Jeff saw a pattern.”
After a conversation with Hostetler, Ismail had a better understanding of how he needed to play in the NFL.
“From that conversation, it turned out that we really weren’t on the same page,” Ismail said. “I learned how he wanted me to do things. Now, he tells me what he wants and I’m, like, cool. That’s all you have to say to me. I think what has started to happen between us is only the beginning. It’s in the inception stages.”
Another reason for Ismail’s improved season was a long look at himself as a person and athlete.
“When I was younger, I was like everyone else who wanted to do well and have people tell you that you’re doing great,” Ismail said. “I don’t strive for that anymore. I’ve learned that what you get doesn’t bring satisfaction in, as far as peace. You can get all the accolades and all the things that are supposed to make you happy and satisfy you. But you can have as much or more drama when you’re doing well as when you weren’t.”
Before the 1995 season, the Raiders moved back to Oakland.
In his third year with the franchise, Ismail grabbed 28 passes for 491 yards and three scores.
After the season, Oakland traded Ismail to Carolina in exchange for a fifth-round pick in the 1997 NFL Draft.
Carolina was an expansion team in 1995.
However, in 1996, the right mix of veterans and rookies took the franchise to a 12-4 record.
Even more remarkable, the Panthers beat the Cowboys in the Divisional round before losing to Green Bay in the NFC Championship game.
While Carolina was experiencing a break-out year, Ismail was struggling mightily.
He ended the year with a career low of 12 receptions for 214 yards.
The only touchdown Ismail scored was as a rusher.
Things improved for the Rocket in 1997 when he collected 36 catches for 419 yards and two touchdowns.
— Super SportCards (@SuperSportCardT) September 16, 2016
In 1998, Ismail reached his potential at long last.
Despite being part of a dismal 4-12 team, the Rocket was a bright spot.
He hauled in 69 receptions for 1,024 yards, eight touchdowns, 42 rushing yards and another score.
Although Ismail enjoyed his best season as a pro, the Panthers released him following the ‘98 season.
Finally a Cowboy
In 1991, Dallas owner Jerry Jones was not willing to shell out a ton of money for Ismail.
In 1999, the Rocket’s asking price had come down considerably and Jones was still interested.
After outbidding other teams, Jones signed Ismail to a seven-year, $21 million contract.
“Obviously, (Ismail) is a great talent,” then coach Chan Gailey said. “He has excellent speed. He’ll give us that element. He’s made big plays in the past. That’s what he’ll do for us, too, the opportunity to make big plays.”
“Early on, when we were talking to him about coming here, he told me he really didn’t want to make a lot of fanfare about it,” owner Jerry Jones said. “One of the things that attracted him to Dallas the most is he could be a part of some great players… He doesn’t view himself, in any way, as the guy who is the end-all beginning.”
The investment in Ismail was worth it when star receiver Michael Irvin suffered a career-ending injury in Week 4.
The Rocket stepped in and surpassed his previous year’s reception total with 80, a career-high.
He also had a career-high in reception yards with 1,097 while rushing for 110 yards and compiling seven combined scores.
Last one.. this will always be one of my favorite games. Rocket Ismail game winner: pic.twitter.com/dBGVECKS9f
— Marcus Mosher (@Marcus_Mosher) August 10, 2017
In 2000, Ismail tore his ACL in Week 10 and missed the remainder of the season.
The shortened year led to only 25 receptions for 350 yards and a touchdown.
The Rocket rebounded in 2001 with 53 catches for 834 yards and two touchdowns even though he missed two games with a sprained MCL.
In August of 2002, Ismail was placed on injured reserve after herniating a disk in his neck.
After missing the entire season, the Cowboys released Ismail in February of 2003.
He retired a month later.
In nine years with the NFL, Ismail had totals of 363 receptions, 5,295 yards, 28 touchdowns, 423 rushing yards and two rushing scores.
Additionally, Ismail had 2,334 total kick return yards spread over four seasons.
Once he left the NFL, Ismail stayed close to the game for a while.
He was a member of the ESPN College Game Day crew in 2003 and 2004.
Ismail then spent time as the co-host of Cowboys Game Night on FSN Southwest with former Dallas great Nate Newton.
In 2008, Ismail coached the Bouncers, a team in the Slamball League.
Currently, Ismail is married to his wife, Melanie, and they have four children.
The Rocket has two brothers, Qadry and Sulaiman who played football as well.
They both had nicknames similar to their older brother and went by the handles “The Missile” and “The Bomb” respectively.
In 2019, Ismail was selected into the College Football Hall of Fame.
— Football Foundation (@NFFNetwork) December 11, 2019
He is now an inspirational speaker, and enjoys speaking for corporations, schools and churches.
Ismail’s son, Raghib Ismail Jr., played football for the University of Wyoming in 2018 and 2019.