Raghib (Rocket) Ismail, the most famous draft dodger this side of elective office, is about to come home and make his peace with pro football's selective service. For two years now it has been a life on the run for Ismail, the former Notre Dame star who eluded the New England Patriots, owners of the first draft choice in 1991, by fleeing across the border to the Canadian Football League. Apparently it has been an unpleasant exile, because Ismail is coming home to the U.S. in spite of a contract that will pay him $4.5 million in each of the next two years if he stays north of the border.
Ismail's repatriation will be complicated, costly for someone, and it might not be completed for weeks. But his days as a Toronto Argonaut are almost certainly over. He will probably join the Los Angeles Raiders, who drafted him in the fourth round in 1991, even after he had signed with Toronto. Look for the Rocket to be back in the States this fall, back in the NFL, back where the games don't start until they play the song about his red glare.
The only interesting question is, At whose bidding will he be coming back? At first glance it might seem that this is all Ismail's idea. He has been pining to return to the U.S. and take his rightful place in the NFL, to strut his talents in the only big league showcase there is. The CFL is great—those wide fields are fun for a man of Ismail's particular talents—but its players are largely anonymous in the States. Another year in the Great North and Rocket would be remembered in the U.S. as Qadry's older brother, not as the most exciting Notre Dame player since Paul Hornung.
But the answer is not that simple. It has been suggested that Ismail's exile has actually been more unpleasant for Canada than it has been for him and that his return to the NFL—which everyone expected would happen eventually, when his Toronto contract expired—is, in fact, a deportation. Put another way, Canada may have fired him.
Ismail, who is back at Notre Dame this semester working toward his degree in American studies, grudgingly admits to the latter scenario. After some initial misgivings that were reasonable enough for anyone who grew up in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., dreaming of playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Ismail came to like both Toronto and the CFL. In fact, he says, he was just beginning to hit his stride. "I was getting ready to branch out into the community," he says. "Get my programs going." But he adds quickly, "The chances of me going back are not good."
The thinking in Toronto is that the Argonauts' principal owner, Bruce McNall, is going to cut his losses and will launch the Rocket across the border whether the kid wants to go or not. The belief is that McNall has been so dissatisfied with his little trophy that he not only wants to stop payment on Ismail's fabulous salary but may demand a refund as well.
This sounds preposterous, considering that, in football terms, Ismail delivered and then some. His first season in Toronto he caught 64 passes for 1,300 yards and nine touchdowns, and in fashion so dramatic that McNall could not even have fantasized it, he helped the Argonauts clinch the Grey Cup with an 87-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Moreover, in a city where the Argos are the third team, behind the Maple Leafs and the Blue Jays, he helped boost attendance from 30,500 a game to 37,120.
At $4.5 million a year, he was almost a bargain. "In the beginning," says Hugh Campbell, general manager of the rival Edmonton Eskimos, "he was an excellent signing. He got the attention Toronto needed. I'm not sure he returned the investment dollar for dollar that first year, but nobody in the league was laughing at McNall."
Last year there was some snickering. Ismail's numbers went way down (he caught only 36 passes for 651 yards) as the team went from first to worst in its four-team division, and attendance sagged to 34,000 per game. None of this was Ismail's fault exactly. After the Argonauts' starting quarterback, Matt Dunigan, left in a contract dispute, the team didn't have a passer who could deliver the ball to him, or anyone else. But amid all this failure, the novelty of a high-priced kick returner and occasional receiver was wearing pretty thin. It occurred to the fans that Ismail was becoming invisible on the team—just a guy who happened to be more of a bank breaker than a game breaker. For goodness' sake, the Argonauts' most popular player was a bargain-basement guy with a nickname every bit as good as the Rocket's. Rest assured that running back Pinball Clemons, who smiled a lot more than Ismail, was not making $4.5 million a year.
Of course Ismail was not there just to play football. You could figure that out from his contract, which specified only $110,000 per annum from the Argonauts for the odd catch or kick return. The rest of his considerable contract was fashioned as a personal-services deal with McNall. Ismail was being paid as an ambassador, the Wayne Gretzky of Canadian football.