SPORTS WATCH

Is this Rocket a CFL time bomb?

There’s an anticipation about watching Raghib similar to watching a couple of tough heavyweights: when’s the explosion?

TRENT FRAYNE August 5 1991
SPORTS WATCH

Is this Rocket a CFL time bomb?

There’s an anticipation about watching Raghib similar to watching a couple of tough heavyweights: when’s the explosion?

TRENT FRAYNE August 5 1991

Is this Rocket a CFL time bomb?

SPORTS WATCH

There’s an anticipation about watching Raghib similar to watching a couple of tough heavyweights: when’s the explosion?

TRENT FRAYNE

There has been a certain concern among teams in the Canadian Football League that the addition of a human time bomb named Raghib Ismail has made the Toronto Argonauts altogether too strong for their competitors, that instead of Raghib Ismail (luckily, this guy is called Rocket; no two people can agree how to say his name) saving the CFL, as in the original scenario, his presence is endangering it. The thinking goes like this:

For the past decade or so, Argonaut attendance has dwindled. Moving their home games from an old joke called Exhibition Stadium to a platinum-encrusted hamburger stand called the SkyDome only served to underline the fact that football was going belly-up in Toronto. In this gilt-edged downtown parking garage which can seat upwards of 50,000 people above the cars, outcroppings of 25,000 or so were lost in the opulent vastness. Accordingly, there was growing speculation that if the decline continued and the Argonauts folded, so would the CFL.

Unexpectedly, for reasons that never became clear, Bruce McNall, a Hollywood Croesus, purchased the franchise. He added Wayne Gretzky and John Candy to his cast as coowners, snatched the aforementioned Raghib Ismail from under the talons of various salivating National Football League (NFL) proprietors and opened the home season against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats with a joyous thunderclap of loud, louder, loudest musicians and Hollywood faces belonging to Dan Aykroyd, Jim Belushi and Ernest Hemingway’s tall, slender granddaughter Mariel.

For the home opener against Hamilton that preceded last week’s 30-16 romp over Winnipeg, the Great McNall Pizzazz Machine had done its job. The night was a palpable hit for practically everybody—the 41,178 in the stands, the thundering herd on the halftime stage, the Rocket with a sensational pass reception and a couple of sizzling runs, the Argonauts in an easy 41-18 rout and the league itself

in the resuscitation of CFL attention in Toronto.

There was just this one flaw: fans of the Tiger-Cats didn’t have a whole lot of fun. For football in Hamilton, already a shaky proposition, the rout was portentous, forecasting boxoffice doom when other, Rocketless teams invade Hamilton. The wonder was, has McNall overdone it?

There’s no question that Raghib Ismail is an attraction to cloud men’s minds. People in a position to assess this human torpedo’s assets provide adequate testimony. Last New Year’s Day in Miami prior to the Orange Bowl game, the ex-coach of the San Francisco 49ers, Bill Walsh, said that Raghib was the fastest man he had ever seen on a football field.

“I don’t know about a 100-yard sprint,” Walsh said, “but in football gear, yes, he’s the fastest I’ve seen.”

Raghib’s quarterback, Tony Rice, added to the chorus. “I can overthrow him, sure,” said Tony, “as long as I throw it while he’s still in his stance.”

Teammates peering at game films often toyed with the first syllable of Ismail’s name when he touched the ball, a drawn-out “hiss” to imitate the sound of a lighted fuse.

Closer to home there’s the Rocket’s Argo-

naut quarterback, the nine-year CFL veteran Matt Dunigan. One afternoon at an Argo workout, injured Matt stood in civvies on the sideline resting a pulled calf muscle.

“Considering all the fuss, what’s surprised you most about Raghib?” queried your agent.

Matt nursed a chaw of eating tobacco nestled inside his lower lip. “His shyness,” Matt said at length.

“And on the field,” pursued your agent, “has he the best moves you’ve seen?”

“Well now, a lot of guys have a lot of moves, such as Mike Clemons, who makes moves like I’ve never seen before,” said the quarterback, naming a bowling ball of an Argonaut runner nicknamed Pinball, the CFL’s most outstanding award winner last season. “The difference is, Clemons makes whole teams miss. Rocket will make one or two guys miss and he’s gone!”

There’s an anticipation and excitement about watching Raghib that’s similar to watching a couple of tough heavyweights: when’s the explosion? Often he’s a decoy on pass plays. Then it will be his ball and he’ll break and cut and then float clear in the long, rhythmic strides of a quarter-miler. Or running back a kickoff, he eludes the first couple of tacklers with sudden direction changes, then whirls in a wide loop towards the sideline. On sheer speed, as Matt Dunigan says, “he’s gone.”

After all the hoopla, a surprising thing about Raghib (the way he says his name it sounds like Raw-gib, with a hard “g” and equal emphasis on the syllables) is his size. He doesn’t appear much wider than a lamppost and about half as high. Is this how Wayne Gretzky looked on first glance to the hockey fans of Los Angeles? Raghib is five-foot-10 and calls 173 lb. his weight, but among the behemoths of football, where linemen run to 250 and six-five, he looks almost fragile.

Off the field, at age 21, he has remained modest and unpretentious even while in possession of a four-year contract valued at $18 million or better. He lives in a downtown Toronto apartment visited frequently by his widowed mother, Fatma, vivacious and outgoing, for whom he recently bought, according to a column in The Globe and Mail, a red Mercedes-Benz and a new home near WilkesBarre, Pa., with “extra acreage,” whatever that means.

Though by far the richest, Raghib is by no means the only glittering figure who has performed in the CFL, three quarterbacks later ' lighting up the hallowed NFL. Joe Kapp was an all-Canadian quarterback for the B.C. Lions in 1963 and 1964 before guiding the Minnesota Vikings to championship heights in 1969. Joe Theismann helped put the Argonauts into the Grey Cup game in 1971 before quarterbacking the Washington Redskins to a Super Bowl title in 1983, and Warren Moon has emerged as one of the NFL’S foremost passers with the Houston Oilers following six seasons and five Grey Cup triumphs for the Edmonton Eskimos from 1978 through 1983. None of these Goliaths was too big for the CFL to swallow; chances are it will survive Raghib Ismail and the Great McNall Pizzazz Machine as well.