A Secret Launching
Raghib (Rocket) Ismail is alive and well, and on Sunday he completed an all-star regular season for the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League. But no one south of the SkyDome knows about it. "It's like he disappeared off the face of the earth," says one NFL coach. "His brother [ Syracuse wideout Qadry] is more famous now."
Ismail says he's positive he made the right decision to spurn the NFL, and he says he'll definitely be back in Toronto next summer to fulfill the second year of a four-year contract that guarantees him at least $18.2 million. The Raiders hold his NFL rights, but Ismail is vague about his future in U.S. pro football. "People get paid to speculate," he says. "There are no yeses, there are no noes. Who knows what the future holds? Right now, for me, it's here and school."
The Argos finished with the best record (13-5) in the CFL and head into the postseason as the favorites to win the Grey Cup on Nov. 24—and the Rocket played no small part in Toronto's success.
He was fourth in the league in kickoff-return average (25.4 yards on 31 attempts), fifth in punt-return average (12.5 yards on 48 runbacks), ninth in receptions (64), fifth in receiving yards (1,300, for a 20.3 average per catch), 21st in rushing (271 yards on 36 attempts) and first in all-purpose yards (2,959, for a 16.5 average every time he touched the ball). In addition, he scored 13 TDs this year, but he electrified the crowd with only one of his patented kick returns for a TD.
Ismail, who is two semesters short of his degree in American studies, plans to return to Notre Dame in January. First, though, here are some of his impressions on making what is generally considered a difficult switch to the Canadian game:
?The 12-man lineups: "You see 12 guys on the field at first, and it's mass confusion, especially on special teams. On returns, you're back there and you look ahead, and you say, 'Holy smokes! Look at all these guys? Where'd they all come from?' You wouldn't think adding one guy is that big a deal, but it is."
?The CFL field, which is 10 yards longer and 12 yards wider than the American gridiron: "Going back to high school, all I was ever taught was: Run north and south, don't waste time going east-west. Whenever I saw even the littlest hole, I was gone upfield—or at least trying to go upfield. But here, the coach wants you to change your thinking. I can maybe go backwards five yards and run around and get a block, then pick up 20 extra yards. My mentality's not like that, and it's hard to break out of my north-south habit."
?Pass coverage: "It's so hands-on. I thought when I got up here the defensive backs were going to try to rough me up, because I was the new guy. But it's league-wide; they're all over you the whole field."
As for the Rocket's fan appeal: Attendance at Toronto games increased an average of 14,472 at the SkyDome (36,304 per game), but the Argos' average draw was up only 3,959 on the road (29,630) during the last season.