"Oh, yeah," says Setzer. "And it was on the fourth 40 of the day, too, wasn't it, guys? Four-point-18. Man. That's flying. Even at Notre Dame, that's flying."
"I caught the gun on that one," says Ismail. He assumes his sprinter's stance, his back nearly parallel to the floor. He looks smaller, more vulnerable than his teammates. Then he explodes out of the stance, blasting off his right foot. His jeans are gathered at the ankles, revealing the rock formation of his right calf at lift-off. He explodes five feet across the floor before his left foot hits the ground. The Rocket Start. "See?" he asks.
The words of coach Holtz come to mind. "I'd never heard of a good football player named Raghib," Holtz had said. "At his size, how good could he be? I wasn't high on him. Then I went to his hometown, Wilkes-Barre [Pa.]. I loved his personality. I could sense this was someone people genuinely loved. There was something special about him. Intensity. Awareness. Unselfishness. I didn't realize he was as fast as he turned out to be. He's fast. At the beginning of last season he didn't start. We put him in only on long passes. That changed when the defensive backs started backpedaling the moment we broke the huddle. Rocket is beyond quick."
"I can overthrow him, sure," Notre Dame's quarterback, Tony Rice, once said, "as long as I throw it while he's still in his stance."
Last year, when Notre Dame went undefeated and won the national title, Raghib Ismail, a freshman, caught 13 passes for 354 yards—27.2 yards per catch—and two touchdowns. He led the Irish in all-purpose running (836 yards), and he led the nation in kickoff return average (36.1). His two kickoff returns—of 88 and 92 yards—for touchdowns last Saturday against Michigan (preceding story) matched his total for last season, when he scored on two returns, of 83 and 87 yards, against Rice.
This season, Holtz has shifted Ismail from split end to flanker, the spot once occupied by Tim Brown, who owns one of those Notre Dame Heismans. "We have to get the ball to Rocket as often as we can," says Holtz. "He's the closest to a sure thing as there can be here."
Finally, the players push themselves away from the training table. At sunset Ismail takes a visitor for a stroll around the campus and reflects on how he, born of Islamic parents, taken in by a grandmother who gave him the choice of going to her Protestant church or going hungry, had come to enroll at the mighty Catholic university.
"Raghib fills my heart with such joy," his mother, Fatma, has said. "Raghib says to the world, I am joy, enthusiasm, gratitude, praises and love. In Arabic, Raghib means 'He who is desirous to serve his Lord.' Raghib is the head of our family. Raghib's word is law."
"I feel a power in me greater than myself," Ismail says. "Once I was running an outdoor 100 meters. I think I was timed in 10.20. It was a nice warm track. I could almost see my body coming out of itself, if that makes sense. It was like, Wow! Am I touching the ground at all? It was like flying, like no effort at all! So I know I am blessed. I can only thank Almighty God."
Ismail balances his dual role—of being the head of his family and a brilliant young student-athlete on the ascent—with a wisdom, presence and patience beyond his years. You would like to know how such a young man came to be, especially these days. You would like to know where to find the cookie cutter.