Raghib "Rocket" Ismail launched his pro football career Saturday night by signing a four-year contract with the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League for $6.5 million per year.
Ismail, a part-time wide receiver, part-time running back and full-time return specialist for Notre Dame who chose to turn pro after his junior season, was expected to be the top selection in the National Football League draft yesterday by the Dallas Cowboys, who had traded for the No. 1 pick.
But Ismail signed with the Argonauts, and yesterday he said that he had agreed to play in Toronto "several days ago." Ismail, though, still met with Dallas officials Saturday before signing with the Argonauts.
"All it got down to was dotting the i's and crossing the t's," said Ismail, 5 feet 10, 175 pounds, runner-up in last year's Heisman Trophy voting. "I'm going to make my family happy. Regardless of how things turn out for me, they're going to be able to live comfortably and not have to worry about anything."
Bruce McNall, owner of the Argonauts and the National Hockey League's Los Angeles Kings, reportedly signed Ismail to a contract that will pay Ismail $26.2 million for 1991-94, of which $18.2 million is guaranteed.
"Rocket is a fine, fine player, and we wish him a lot of luck," said Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. "We asked and received an offer from Ismail's agents. It was very apparent when we got their offer that Rocket was legitimately headed to Canada. His numbers were totally out of our range. Basically, we wanted to see if there was a chance of an NFL team being able to sign him."
Ismail still was selected in the NFL draft, selected by the Los Angeles Raiders in the fourth round.
Ismail's base salary of $4.5 million is nearly the same as that of pitchers Roger Clemens of the Boston Red Sox and Dwight Gooden of the New York Mets, as well as that of Oakland Athletics outfielder Jose Canseco, baseball's three highest-paid players.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana is the highest-paid player in the NFL at $3.75 million a year.
According to Jon Edwards, Ismail can earn another $2 million per year by attracting larger crowds than expected and with other services.
"This agreement is unprecedented in professional football and is one of the most innovative sports contracts ever entered into by a professional athlete," said Edwards, who negotiated the contract.
The Argonauts are owned by McNall, Kings star Wayne Gretzky lTC and actor John Candy. They purchased the franchise earlier this year from Harry Ornest for $5 million, meaning McNall paid more for Ismail then he did for the entire team.
"This is certainly a landmark acquisition for not only the Argonauts, but the entire CFL," McNall said in the statement. "Speaking for both John [Candy] and Wayne [Gretzky], we have a great deal of optimism for the potential of such an exciting star such as Rocket."
Earlier this month, McNall had opened the bidding for Ismail at $6 million for two years, but raised his offer after the Dallas Cowboys traded with the New England Patriots to get the top pick in yesterday's NFL draft.
In a conference Friday night, Team Rocket reportedly had offered the Dallas Cowboys a special price of $14.5 million over five years. Half would have been guaranteed, half deferred.
The Cowboys declined, believing the offer was too excessive, and so did the Atlanta Falcons.
Ismail attended Saturday night's Kings-Edmonton Oilers game at the Forum, but left before the end of the game and did not comment on the matter.
It was Ismail's second visit to Los Angeles in recent weeks. He had been given the red-carpet treatment by McNall during the Kings-Vancouver Canucks playoff series. McNall also had a team plane sent to South Bend, Ind., to pick up Ismail and take him to Toronto and Los Angeles. The fine treatment may have helped Ismail reach his decision.
"Mr. McNall and his organization have the reputation of treating people as more than a piece of meat," Ismail said.
Ismail averaged 8 yards per rush, 24 yards per kickoff return and 22 yards per catch on 32 receptions last season for the Fighting Irish.
He ran track after the football season ended, and recorded the fastest 55-meter time of the year -- 6.07 seconds. The speed and the elusive moves could be more valuable in the CFL than the NFL, because the CFL has wider fields, gives punt returners a 3-yard cushion when fielding the ball and allows two offensive players to move forward before the ball is snapped.
Ismail did not rule out returning to the NFL someday.
"It's a four-year contract; we'll see what happens," he said.