Not that anybody in the NFL noticed, of course, but Raghib (Rocket) Ismail sure did have a good time at his pro football coming-out party last Thursday in Toronto. The evening was so sultry that the Skydome roof was peeled back to allow the energized crowd of 41,875, which sounded as if it had warmed up in the arena's Hard Rock Cafe, to see the stars. The ones in the sky, not the ones hanging around on the field. The celebrity lineup included John Candy, Jim Belushi, Mariel Hemingway, Wayne Gretzky, Brett Hull and Super Dave Osborne. Oh, yeah, and the Elwood Blues Revue, featuring Dan Aykroyd on vocals and harmonica, performed at halftime and after the game.
All this glitz, hitherto unheard-of in the Canadian Football League, guaranteed that everybody would walk away reasonably happy, even if Rocket fizzled. After all, he was coming off a leg injury and was making his first appearance in uniform since bypassing his senior year at Notre Dame—not to mention the NFL draft-to sign a four-year contract with the Toronto Argonauts that guaranteed he would earn at least $18 million. But Ismail flashed enough glimpses of his well-documented explosiveness on Thursday to make even skeptics begin to think that the Argos' new owners—main man Bruce McNall and his cronies, actor-comedian Candy and hockey icon Gretzky—just might know what they're doing.
Sure, Rocket handled the ball only seven times, partly because he hadn't fully recovered from a strained quadriceps in his left leg, and partly because he was still learning the Toronto offense and adapting to the Canadian game, with its three-down series, 110- by 65-yard field and so on. In addition, he admitted after the game to having had such a bad case of the jitters that "I never could get my legs to stop shaking." Still, Rocket piled up 213 all-purpose yards, including 73 on a tricky punt return that was the most exciting play in the Argos' 41-18 victory over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
"Some show, huh?" said McNall in the Toronto locker room. "And that's only the beginning."
When McNall, Candy and Gretzky bought the Argos in February for $5 million, they not only picked up the CFL's most venerated franchise, they also got a scoring machine that last season averaged 38 points a game and fell four points short of earning a spot in the Grey Cup. The problem was, Toronto attendance had dropped from a club-record average of 47,356 in 1976 to 31,676 last season.
To McNall, who made the bulk of his fortune dealing in rare coins, the first order of business was to do with the Argos what he did when he acquired Gretzky for his Los Angeles Kings hockey team—get somebody with enough star quality to fill the seats, interest the TV networks and generate excitement. The answer was Ismail, the 5'10", 175-pound dervish whose potential to score a touchdown every time he touched the ball made him one of the most exciting players in college history during his three seasons in South Bend.
From Ismail's standpoint, the money was important, but he also liked Toronto, which many U.S. blacks find more congenial than most major American cities, and he liked the idea of joining a team with an offense so potent that he wouldn't be expected to do too much too soon. Indeed, the Argos already possessed two of the league's premier big-play men in 5'5" back Mike (Pinball) Clemons, who last season amassed a CFL-record 3,300 all-purpose yards, and slotback Darrell K. Smith, whose 20 touchdown catches in 1990 set a league record.
However, soon after practice began in June, Ismail strained the quadriceps and then needed to have some wisdom teeth pulled. The rumor mill had it that he was malingering in practice and not paying attention in team meetings. Earlier this month, when he made a five-day trip to Los Angeles, ostensibly scheduled for business purposes but also to get a second opinion on his leg injury, some of his teammates questioned his dedication.
"A lot of baloney," Argo defensive back Carl Brazley said after the game. "There was no story when I missed four days because I got my wisdom teeth pulled. I felt sorry for him. He's been trying to fit in and do his thing and be one of the gang. But it's hard with all the hype."
His ailments caused Ismail to miss both of the Argos' exhibition games, plus their season opener on July 11 at Ottawa, where he at least sat on the bench and cheered his teammates to a 35-18 victory. Of course, nobody, least of all McNall and his partners, could feel too disappointed, because it meant that Ismail would make his debut at home, amid all the hoopla.