ROCKET’S RED GLARE
RAGHIB ISMAIL IS ALREADY ONE OF THE RICHEST PLAYERS IN FOOTBALL HISTORY
The hip-hop music is throbbing in the back of the black stretch limousine, which, as Raghib (Rocket) Ismail unabashedly demonstrates, is big enough to dance in. But as the huge car manoeuvres through the heart of Chicago, the backseat can barely contain the energy and exuberance of the 21-year-old athlete, already known as one of the best football players of his time. Bouncing from one side of the car to the other, Ismail excitedly points out the sites and landmarks as they flash by: the homes of Chicago’s wealthy on Lake Shore Drive, the Sears Tower and baseball’s old, and partly demolished, Comiskey Park. But he slumps back n his seat when the downtown skyline falls behind and the limousine rolls past the grim wall of housing blocks on Chicago’s poor and violent south side. “There’s so much talent and creativity trapped in there,” Ismail says softly. “But it is tough to break out. First, you have to learn how to survive in that environment, and then you have learn to survive in a whole new environment outside.”
Ismail, who spent his own childhood in Newark, N.J., clearly knows both worlds. His escape from the inner cities was football, which unlocked his own special talent: a potent blend of explosive speed, uncanny instincts and fierce
competitiveness. Earlier last week in Toronto, Ismail demonstrated that he has mastered the outside environment as well. With his easy grin and ebullient manner, the five-foot, 10-inch Ismail charmed scores of journalists at a news conference called to celebrate his spectacular $30.1-million signing with the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League. The lucrative contract immediately placed Ismail at the pinnacle of his sport, making him—even before appearing in his first professional game—the second-highest-paid player in football, behind veteran quarterback Jim Kelly of
the National Football League’s Buffalo Bills.
The deal is also a coup for the financially troubled CFL. The Canadian league has a long history of luring stars from south of the border, beginning with the Edmonton Eskimos’ signing of University of Oklahoma standout Billy Vessels in 1952. But it is unlikely that the CFL has ever snared a player of Ismail’s stature away from the more powerful NFL. During his three college years at the football-fabled University of Notre Dame at South Bend, Ind., Ismail’s electrifying kick returns and running ability made him one of the most celebrated athletes in the United States. His decision to play in the CFL injects a badly needed dose of excitement into a league whose franchises are struggling to attract the crowds and television revenues needed to survive (page 42).
Flashy: The architect of the deal that brought Ismail to Toronto was Los Angeles businessman Bruce McNall (page 45). It was the second time in the past three years that the brash McNall has shocked the sports world. In 1988, the coin collector and visionary sports entrepreneur, who also owns the Los Angeles Kings of the National Hockey League, spent a staggering $18 million to acquire hockey icon Wayne Gretzky from the Edmonton Oilers. Along with Gretzky and comedian John Candy—each of whom now owns a 20-per-cent share of the franchise— McNall finalized his $5.7-million purchase of the Argonauts last week. Now, by successfully wooing Ismail, McNall has tweaked the noses of NFL owners who had been expected to make Ismail the first selection in the league’s annual draft of new players. “Raghib has that star quality,” McNall told reporters in a hotel ballroom adjacent to the Toronto SkyDome, where Ismail will play. “He has an opportunity to transcend his sport, like Wayne does with hockey.”
services contract with Argonaut owner Bruce McNall.
CFL salary from the Toronto Argonauts-at
least $115,000 per year for four years.
Guaranteed four-year income from related sources, including a share of promotion and endorsement revenues, a share of any increase in Argonaut ticket revenues, and additional joint business ventures with McNall.
Estimated four-year additional potential earnings from related sources. In addition, Ismail will receive a portion of any increase in the team's market value.
Indeed, Ismail’s flashy play and engaging offfield personality provide an infusion of adrenaline and the promise of revival to the CFL. Ismail does not merely score touchdowns—he accomplishes them in dazzling style. By excelling at a sport usually dominated by much bigger, stronger men, the 174-lb. Ismail embodies the spirit of the underdog. And his reputation for modesty is, to many of his fans, a relief from the seemingly endless parade of arrogant and petulant professional athletes seeking ever greater riches.
Not that Ismail will be underpaid. His deal with McNall—a personal-services contract negotiated by a battery of San Francisco-based lawyers, accountants and marketing executives who call themselves “Team Rocket”—guarantees Ismail $16.1 million just for playing football. As well, he will earn another $4.6 million—and possibly as much as an additional $9.4 million—from a host of business ventures. The contract, said Edmonton Eskimos general manager Hugh Campbell, “clearly represents a marketing decision” by McNall aimed at invigorating both the Argonauts and the league. Added Campbell: “No player is worth $4 million—not in this league or any other.” Legendary: But Ismail insisted that money alone did not draw him to McNall and the CFL. In his meetings with prospective NFL bosses, Ismail said, he was “treated like an immature child instead of a young man coming into a business.” The personable McNall, on the other hand, lavished attention on Ismail and, according to the player, “treated me the way I like to treat people.” In the United States, many football fans and sportswriters were dismayed that Ismail chose to begin his professional career in Canada instead of testing himself in the NFL. Said Bill Moor, a sports columnist with the South Bend Tribune who defended Ismail’s decision: “Kids just love the Rocket, and people down here are sad that they won’t be able to see him on TV anymore.”
But few of those who know Ismail well were surprised by his decision. Two weeks before the signing, he flew to
Toronto at McNall’s expense
to tour the city and meet several current members of the Argonauts. Said John Millar, who grew up in Toronto and now is the assistant track coach at Notre Dame: “He came back very impressed from his trip to Toronto. And he seemed to have little enthusiasm for dealing with the NFL.” Speaking to reporters in Los Angeles early last week, Ismail said that he was attracted to Toronto partly because he believed that it had a more tolerant racial climate. “The people up there don’t seem to be as closed-minded in their attitudes,” he said.
Pointing to his cheek, he added: “They seem to accept you for what you are rather than for the color of your skin.”
Friends also speculated that Ismail was fleeing the incessant hounding he endures from fans and journalists wherever he travels in the United States. Even at Notre Dame, which has produced a pantheon of famous athletes, Ismail’s athletic prowess is legendary. As well as playing football, he is a champion sprinter—his time of 10.34 seconds in the 100-m dash (the world record is 9.92) is the fastest ever recorded at Notre Dame. But Ismail has been besieged so often by autograph-seekers that he now practises separately from the rest of the track team. He once explained to Millar that one reason he eats only a single meal a day is that he is constantly pestered for autographs when he goes to the university dining hall.
Said Moor: “He grew testy with the media here in his last year. He likes his privacy.
Going to Toronto is his way of saying, ‘I’ll do it my way.’ ”
Blitz: During a two-hour drive from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport to South Bend last week, Ismail told Maclean’s that he was completely at peace with his decision to come to the CFL. He eagerly read a day-old Chicago Tribune story on the NFL draft, snorting derisively at comments from NFL executives that he was not an “impact player” capable of improving a team’s fortunes on his own.
Ismail acknowledged that the two-week period leading up to his signing had been difficult. Lifting his blue baseball cap and pointing to a line of acne on his forehead, he said:
“When I get stressed, my face breaks out.”
With the contract negotiations and media blitz behind him, Ismail’s spirits were buoyant. Cranking the volume of the car’s powerful radio to maximum, he scanned the dial in search of ever-better dance music and said that he would have loved to have been a professional dancer. “I learned to dance by watching videos as a kid,” shouted Ismail, adding that he took ballet lessons at Notre Dame last summer, which helped to improve his co-ordination and muscular flexibility. “Dancing just fills me with joy.”
Among his other passions are soul and rap music. Posters of pop singer Janet Jackson adorn the walls of his cramped dormitory room at Notre Dame’s Grace Hall. And on his answering machine, Ismail has left a recorded announcement in the form of an original 30second rap song.
Ismail spent his early childhood in a tough inner-city neighborhood of Newark, where his
family—he has two brothers—was once robbed by their next-door neighbors. Both his parents had separately converted to Islam as young adults, taking Islamic names. Ismail’s American-born father, Ibrahim, was an Islamic scholar who learned to speak Arabic fluently and gave lectures on religious law. But in an effort to escape the racism he encountered while growing up in New Jersey, Ibrahim concocted an elaborate—but false—personal history, claiming to have been bom in Khartoum, the capital city of the Sudan. He did not disclose the truth to his own family—his wife, Fatma, and sons Raghib (pronounced rawg-ib), Qadry,
20, who attends Syracuse University in New York state, and Sulaiman, 18, now in his final year of high school in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.—until shortly before his death from kidney failure in 1980, when Raghib was 10. Recalled Raghib: “When my father passed away, the boy part of my life was gone.”
After Ibrahim’s death, Fatma could no longer afford to send her sons to a local Islamic school. The shift to the chaotic public school environment was a jarring change for Raghib, whose scholastic achievements had been encouraged by his father and who now faced classroom jeers when he showed his ability to read aloud. “We lived in an area in Newark where they would cut your throat for a dime,” recalled Fatma, who remembered bribing nearby drug dealers with home-baked cookies to convince them to avoid doing business when the three boys were around.
On the advice of teachers and friends, Fatma
sent her sons to live with their paternal grandmother in Wilkes-Barre in 1983. At the time, Raghib recalled, he hated to leave his Newark neighborhood. “Drugs were all around, but it was a normal part of life, so nobody thought much about it,” he said. And in Wilkes-Barre, a predominantly white, middle-class city of 50,000, the Islamic name and background was no shield against racism. “I remember a girl down the street telling us that her parents did not want her to play with us,” he said. “The parents said we weren’t going to amount to anything and were just trouble.”
But at Meyers High School in Wilkes-Barre,
Raghib soon astonished his high-school track and football coaches with his lightning speed. High-school track coach Jim Cross recalled that the first time he saw Ismail run the 100-yard dash, he turned to an assistant coach and said: “ ‘He shot out of there like a rocket.’ Well, the kids heard that and from then on, he was ‘the Rocket’. Anyway, who the hell wants to call him Raghib? The kids could not even pronounce it.”
Harmful: Ismail performed with equal talent on the football field. As a Grade 9 student, he scored 30 touchdowns for the freshman team—even though he weighed only 125 lb. Three years later, and 40 lb. heavier, he scored 36 touchdowns in 10 games for the school’s senior team. “We were worried about giving him the ball too much because of his size,” said Wayne Dwyer, an assistant high-school coach who remains a close family friend, and who drove seven hours to Toronto to attend last
week’s news conference. “But his eyes are incredible. He sees everybody coming.”
Dwyer is one of a number of adults who nurtured Ismail during his adolescent years and tried to protect him from harmful influences. Many of them said that they were attracted by Ismail’s endearing personality, not simply his athletic abilities. “The kid never had anything,” said Mickey Gorham, Ismail’s highschool football coach. “But he never was an T person. Any accolades he got athletically, he would pass the glory on to his teammates. Of course, some of the parents might have been jealous. But the kids themselves really appreciated the fact that he acknowledged them for their contributions. And I thought that was a real unusual trait.”
Mystique: Track coach Cross, meanwhile, remembered Ismail defending a mentally retarded teenager who was being picked on by another student. Recalls Cross: “Rocket said, ‘You lay one hand on that kid and you’re going to answer to me.’ He protected the underdogs. He had so much compassion.”
By all accounts, Ismail retained that humility even after enrolling at Notre Dame, a school where football players are treated with reverence. Even in high school, Ismail was immersed in the Notre Dame mystique. Before every game, he would go to Dwyer’s house to watch Wake Up the Echoes, a documentary on Notre Dame’s football tradition. “I thought professional football was too boring, so I started watching college ball on TV,” said Ismail. But he made the decision to accept Notre Dame’s scholarship offer in part, he said, “because when I saw their running back, I thought to myself: ‘Now there’s a team I could make.’ ”
Even now, Ismail displays few of the trappings of a U.S. college football star. Although some of his teammates drive expensive European-made automobiles, Ismail himself does not even own a car. “I haven’t had wheels since my 15-speed bike was stolen in first year,” he said. And Ismail does not possess a credit card.
Hoopla: Still, Ismail said that financial security for his family was the main reason he decided to quit Notre Dame a year before graduation. Last fall, he publicly pledged to finish his degree in American studies and communications before beginning professional football. But Ismail, a C average student, was badly shaken by the unexpected death from natural causes of football teammate Chris Zorich’s mother,
Zora, last January. The popular Zorich, an all-America defensive tackle, discovered his mother’s body upon returning home following Notre Dame’s 10-9 Orange Bowl loss to the University of Colorado on New Year’s Day. “Chris had played his last game and was finally going to be able to take care of his mom,” said Ismail last week. “Her death made me think that you’ve got to deal with the reality of today, to take advantage of opportunities when they’re here.”
Before signing with the Argonauts, Ismail telephoned his mother in Wilkes-Barre, where she works as a legal secretary, and asked her for advice. Recalled Fatma Ismail last week: “I said, ‘Honey, get on the freedom train and let’s go.’” Although she said that she intends to quit her job, she insisted that her son’s newfound wealth will not alter the Raghib family’s approach to life. “It may change our address, it may change the way we go to the grocery store,” said the outgoing Fatma, who carries a prayer rug with her when she travels and prays several times a day, “but it is not going to change the Ismails.” Although they speak on the phone virtually every day, Ismail appears not to share his mother’s love of religion. “You could say I am nondenominational,” he said.
(Estimated Average Annual Income in Millions* ) 1. Roger Clemens Boston Red Sox 2. Dwight Gooden New York Mets 3. John (Hot Rod) Williams Cleveland Cavaliers 4. Jim Kelly Buffalo Bills 5. Jose Canseco Oakland Athletics 6. Patrick Ewing New York Knicks 7. Raghib (Rocket) Ismail Toronto Argonauts 8. Andy Van Slyke Pittsburgh Pirates 9. TonyGwynn San Diego Padres 10. Hakeem Olajuwon Houston Rockets 40. Wayne Gretzky Los Angeles Kings ( top - salaried NHL player)
* Includes base salaries, signing bonuses and deferred income. Figures do not include performance bonuses and other incentives.
Sources: Inside Sports, The New York Times, Sport
After the hoopla of his Toronto visit, it was a clearly relieved Rocket who returned to South Bend for his final days as a third-year student. Ahead, he said, lay “too many papers” still to write and worries that his failure to train for the past two weeks meant that he “was going to get smashed” in a weekend 100-m race in Philadelphia. But even the journey home was interrupted several times by well-wishers. Wearing a silver-and-black Los Angeles Kings windbreaker and lugging a gift basket of delicatessen foods left at his Toronto hotel for him by John Candy, he was stopped several times on the way through O’Hare Airport by people eager to congratulate him on his contract. “Sometimes,” said a weary but smiling Ismail as he struggled with the food basket in order to shake hands with an enthusiastic fan in an airport elevator, “people think that they recognize me. But then they say, ‘Nah, that guy's too small to be Rocket.’ ”
A day later, a sleepy Ismail showed up an hour late for his afternoon track practice. “You want to get mad at him for being late,” said a rueful coach Millar. “And then he will flash that big
smile at you and you just cannot get mad at him.” Indeed, Ismail, at heart, is still very much a young man—a raw but gifted athlete who simply loves the sensation of running. “I have just always been fast,” said Ismail. “I suppose once I get older and slow down, I will appreciate it more.” But in just 21 years, that speed has carried Rocket Ismail from the poverty of Newark to his newly minted status as one of the world’s highest-paid athletes.