March 24, 2017

By John Heisler

Former University of Notre Dame football and track All-American and pro football star Raghib “Rocket” Ismail is 47 now.

He’s nearly three decades past those days when at times he struggled with the spotlight that came with making the cover of Sports Illustrated a couple of games into his sophomore season in 1989. And he has matured enough to laugh now about some of his reticence with the media back in his Notre Dame playing days when he longed to just be one of the guys.

Ismail returned to campus Friday and was part of a Q&A session that served as the keynote event for the Notre Dame Law School symposium titled “From Courts of Sport to Courts of Justice.”

Here are some of Ismail’s comments from this wide-ranging–and often hilarious–hour-long discussion:

–He said his “Rocket” nickname came from his Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, eighth grade days when his coach (Jim “Boss” Cross) was trying to teach his sprinters to stay low and drive out of the starting blocks with power. Ismail was the only one to do it correctly, and he imitated his coach’s excited reaction: “‘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 headed to a Syracuse University football camp at the Carrier Dome the summer before his senior year in high school. “There were 500 of us and they timed everybody in the 40,” he said. “When I came back to get my time they were all looking at each other and their watches. Then they asked me to do it again-and I thought I did something wrong. They ignored me and walked over to the stands and it was like an audible wave. There was this buzz that kept coming closer and closer . . . ‘That kid ran 4.3! 4.3?’ . . . Back in the day running a 4.3 was like running 4.1 now.”

–He said the death of Chris Zorich’s mother after the 1991 Orange Bowl greatly impacted his decision to turn professional. “I was totally unprepared for it all, but my brother woke me up the next morning because he watched the news and saw what happened to Chris’ mother. This spirit of fear overwhelmed me because I always thought somehow what I was doing was a way to provide for my family since my father had died. When I would go to some of these All-America functions, the other guys there would say, ‘Hey, are you going pro? You going pro?’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ That’s all I would hear from my peers. After what happened with Chris, I’m sitting on my bed and thinking, what if my mom dies and I would not be able to accomplish my goal of taking care of her-I had that ingrained in me. So I was thinking maybe I needed to go pro like they told me.

“Back on campus I was a nervous wreck. I made the declaration and had a press conference and I did not work out at the combine because I was running track. I did go, but all I did was take the physical. I had to figure out how to get representation. There were rules back then about having to sign a contract before the draft, and I was so ill-prepared for that whole dynamic.”

–Ismail recalls that potential top NFL draft picks would be offered $1.5 million over five years, with a $400,000 signing bonus. “The last year of the contact my base salary would have been $500,000,” he said. Ismail’s San Francisco-based attorney received a call from NHL Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall. After a meeting in Los Angeles, Ismail received a call and his attorney said, “Are you sitting down?” According to Ismail, the plan involved the possibility of McNall (and actor John Candy and hockey great Wayne Gretzky) buying the Toronto Argonaut team in hopes of becoming an NFL franchise.

“They said my base salary would be $4 million a year, I would have some ownership of the team, all these other things,” Ismail said. “And it was true. I lived in Grace Hall, and I got a call in my dorm room from Bruce McNall’s assistant. She said, ‘We’d like to arrange a flight for you to come to Los Angeles. The car will meet you downstairs and we’ll take you to your plane.’ I thought she meant they’d take me to the counter to get a ticket and then catch the plane.

“So I packed up my clothes and got into this old-school stretch limousine. But they drove past the regular part of the airport to the private part. They drove out onto the tarmac and there’s a plane the size of this room with a Kings’ logo on it. There’s a pilot and a co-pilot and a flight attendant, and they said, ‘We’re here for you.’ And I’m the only person on the plane and there’s food for years. We went shopping on Rodeo Drive, we went to the Forum (for a hockey game) and met Sylvester Stallone-and so I ended up signing with Toronto. If I was going to help out my family, this is how it was going to be. I wasn’t an amateur any more and the rest is history. It was a wild ride.”

–Ismail said of his early pro career, “There were always more people being added to the team to facilitate whatever it was they thought I needed. It was very tumultuous internally.” He suggested the “calm in the storm” was his former Notre Dame academic adviser, Sister Kathleen Gilbert who pushed him to return to campus to get his degree-which he did finish in 1994. “That centered me back in my world,” he said. “I got a chance to come back to campus and really enjoy being a student and really enjoy the life of a college student that I couldn’t do when I was playing. When I came back here it was peace. Those years were key in helping me stay grounded.”

–On leaving Toronto and signing with the NFL Los Angeles Raiders, he said, “It was a sigh of relief. I’m not the marquee guy any more. I don’t have to carry the team. I liked being normal, not being the focus of attention everywhere you went. I learned how to survive in the Los Angeles culture. It also revealed a weakness about myself–I realized I was a people pleaser to my own detriment.”

–On his involvement with a current concussion lawsuit: “My whole goal being associated with it is to get awareness out. But you can’t make decisions (on choosing sports for your kids) based on fear. You have to deal wisely with that hazard and proceed accordingly with wisdom.”

–On amateur athletes and the pay-for-play proposals: “It would be irresponsible to pay the athletes without required basic financial courses on how to deal with money, how to deal with taxes, how to minimize your tax liability. Educate your student-athletes that way, whatever the stipend is. If marriages don’t succeed, it’s because of financial issues. Be a good steward over an area that can be key to a relationship.”

–Ismail told a funny story about being at the most recent Super Bowl in Houston, pulling up to his hotel at three in the morning and having four celebrating fans jump into his vehicle, thinking he was an Uber driver. One fan wore Notre Dame apparel, and after a few moments his passengers realized who Ismail was and gushed over him.

–He offered, “At this point in my life I’m very aware of my health. Moderation is something you should encourage. It is so important to be sober-minded. It takes discipline to do it, but it’s vitally important. In 2004 I listened to a physicist talk about the biology of belief. You have to be able to identify what you truly believe. The environment that exposes what you truly believe is that which we call tribulation and challenge. Those are jewels if you look at them as being valuable and a blessing to your life.”

Ismail went back to that 1991 Orange Bowl game against Colorado. “It was a slugfest with a minute and six seconds left. Colorado was winning 10-9 and they were going to punt to us. If you asked anybody on our team prior to the game if that scenario came, if they thought we could succeed, 95 percent would say yes because we did it before when a big moment was needed. There was no reason anyone would say anything different.

“I look at the sideline and Coach (Lou) Holtz is yelling not to fair-catch it and that it’s a middle return. I looked at him like, ‘Oh, yeah, coach, we got this.’ And I’m thinking there’s no way they are kicking it to me. But they get a penalty and they kick it. The thought in my mind is, ‘Don’t go down.’ They set up the tunnel in the middle, and I get hit once and twice and don’t go down and I see a lane forming to the right. I run and I’m into the end zone. It was a moment of euphoria. Then the moment of truth happened. We hear, ‘There’s a flag on the play.’ It was like in the movies.

“When the tribulation hits, three thoughts rise up. The first one is, ‘I’m tired.’ The second is, ‘They are definitely not going to kick it to us again.’ So what I thought was a strength-they took it away. The third thought was, ‘We’re not built as an air team. We’re not built to come from behind throwing the ball in the air.’ These were beliefs I did not even know I had. When that moment of doubt or fear comes, there’s always a way, there’s always a remedy.

“I wished I would have identified that in myself earlier in my life when I was young. Identify what you believe. If it doesn’t agree with, ‘There is a way,’ then you need to change what you believe.”

The 1990 Heisman Trophy runner-up, Ismail now lives with his family in Carrollton, Texas. He has a son, Rocket Ismail Jr., who plays wide receiver at TCU.

Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been covering the Notre Dame athletics scene since 1978. Watch for his weekly Sunday Brunch offerings on