SPORTS WATCH

An offer simply too good to refuse

Even in the world of sports, where millionaires are as plentiful as chewing tobacco, the signing of Rocket was a shocker

TRENT FRAYNE May 6 1991
SPORTS WATCH

An offer simply too good to refuse

Even in the world of sports, where millionaires are as plentiful as chewing tobacco, the signing of Rocket was a shocker

TRENT FRAYNE May 6 1991

An offer simply too good to refuse

SPORTS WATCH

TRENT FRAYNE

In the immortal words of 19th-century French novelist Alphonse Karr (if not Leo Cahill), “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” It was like that in Toronto last week when the new owner of the football Argonauts, Bruce McNall, agreed to pay the equivalent of Canada’s national debt to a 21-year-old undergraduate from Notre Dame University, Raghib Ismail, who has been called the most coveted football player in the world. The amount, as McNall himself was to say, reached “somewhere between $18 million and God knows what” over a four-year contract.

Even in the half-world of sports, where millionaire performers are as plentiful as chewing tobacco, this was a shocker. Especially, it was a shocker for American football cashews since young Ismail, known as Rocket, was the choicest plum in last week’s draft of college players by teams of the National Football League. In American eyes, the NFL is right up there with the presidency and the swimsuit segment of the Miss America contest. Even staid newshounds turned testy when the Rocket changed course to Canada.

“The Rocket accepted the money instead of the challenge, ’’groused Dave Anderson in The New York Times. “Now that the Rocket will be running in the obscurity of the Canadian Football League, it’s as if he were just another space capsule that disintegrated. For all practical purposes, he has vanished.”

A network-television talking head named Fred Edelstein, on the scene at the NFL draft, spent the day in a tirade against Raghib, complaining that he was making this stupid move for mere money (egad, a new concept in the United States). “He will rue the day he left America,” said Edelstein. What the Rocket should have done instead of burying himself in Canada, he said, was spend five or six years in the NFL “and then move into some other capacity, such as broadcasting, like Joe Theismann has done.”

There you go. If Edelstein had known anything about history, he would be aware that (a)

Even in the world of sports, where millionaires are as plentiful as chewing tobacco, the signing of Rocket was a shocker

Joe Theismann spent two years as an Argonaut before joining the Washington Redskins, and (b) that the Argonauts have been swiping American stars from under American noses for decades.

It was, indeed, precisely 36 years ago that Harry Sonshine, a swarthy, jowly former Argonaut player who had become a successful businessman, scouted NFL games and then signed two stars from the Detroit Lions, quarterback Tom Dublinski and tackle Gil Mains, and two stellar linemen from the New York Giants, Billy Shipp and Bill Albright. He enticed them the way McNall lured the Rocket: he paid them more money than the NFL teams were willing to pay them. The quarterback, Dublinski, led the parade to the pay window, an unheard-of $17,500.

The amount had gone up by 1975 when a hotel owner named Bill Hodgson owned the Argonauts and attracted Anthony Davis to Toronto with a five-year contract totalling $1 million. Davis set 18 college records in four years at the University of Southern California, including six marks that had belonged to the celebrated O. J. Simpson. In one game watched on televison by millions of fans on both sides of the border, Davis ran for six touchdowns

against Notre Dame. So Hodgson pursued this wonder runner to help the Argonauts offset the impact of a Montreal Alouette star, Johnny Rodgers, from the University of Nebraska. Rodgers had enraged Hodgson by scoring an easy touchdown against the Argos, running backwards into the end zone.

I remember talking to Hodgson during Grey Cup week in Calgary right after he had landed Anthony Davis. “I’ve made just one request of A. D.,” said the beaming owner. “I’ve asked him when he scores his first touchdown against Montreal to turn around and cross the goal line backwards.” As it happened, Davis never did. He turned out to be something of a whiner in a difficult relationship with the coach, Russ Jackson, and after that one season, he departed.

Earlier, in 1971, the Argonauts enjoyed much more success with a celebrated import. They were seeking a quarterback and the coach then, the uncomplicated and emotional Leo Cahill, recruited Joe Theismann at Notre Dame. Theismann was also being pursued by the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, and when Leo learned that Joe had joined Dolphin coach Don Shula at a news conference in Miami to announce that he had decided to sign with the Dolphins, Leo phoned him to wish him well.

The other day, Leo recalled the conversation. “ ‘By the way, Coach,’ Joe told me, ‘I haven’t signed my contract. I want my coach at Notre Dame to check it.’ I told Joe he owed it to himself and his wife, Shari, to come to Toronto one more time just to have dinner with us and take another look around. And Joe said, ‘Well, OK, we’ve got nothing to do this weekend. Why not?' So they came up and we signed him. We gave him a $50,000 bonus and $50,000 a year for two years. ”

Something like that influenced the explosive Raghib Ismail to join the Argonauts (in addition to enough money to engage the interest of a good right-handed pitcher). Raghib, by the way, with his Moslem name, was bom in Newark, N.J., and raised by his mother, Fatma, and grandmother in the latter’s home in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. His father, Ibrahim Ismail, was a devout Moslem. He died in 1980 from kidney failure and tuberculosis, and it is said that the influence of the young man’s mother has never left him. She has been a disciplinarian, teaching Ismail to be honest and modest.

At any rate, as Leo Cahill had romanced Joe Theismann, McNall romanced the Rocket, only more so. He flew him to Los Angeles and to Toronto in his private jet, had him chauffeured about in his Rolls-Royce and a hired limo, had Wayne Gretzky escort him around the Los Angeles Kings dressing room, the Kings being another of owner McNall’s chattels.

Also influencing the Rocket’s decision was what impressed Theismann 20 years ago: both liked Toronto. “The people there, when they saw me, they didn’t see this,” Raghib said, touching his cheek. “They looked there and saw the person. It’s a feeling that I hadn’t really experienced before I went to Toronto. It just came from the heart. It was great. ”

Now there’s a switch: a guy from outside Toronto praising it. Not everything remains the same.