Two-stage Rocket will land in NFL someday

John Steadman

April 22, 1991|By John Steadman

It has happened before that coveted All-Americans, even two celebrated Heisman Trophy winners, have turned their backs on the National Football League and cast their futures -- if only temporarily -- with the Canadian league. Now Raghib "Rocket" Ismail, who should have won the Heisman but didn't, has reversed his field and accelerated in the same direction.

Ismail is joining the Toronto Argonauts and, because of the decision, interest in the NFL draft significantly decreased. That's what happens when the top marquee name takes himself off the board and heads north of the border, where the field is wider and the game, by virtue of the rule that gives a team only three downs, is exceedingly diversified.

He'll be a more effective breakaway weapon in Canada than he would have been in the NFL, where it was projected he'd be a kick returner and a third-down specialist. So the Rocket, without a semblance of a doubt, made the right decision. He signed a four-year contract with Toronto, guaranteeing him $18 million in salary, incentive clauses and even a possible percentage of ownership in the franchise when his playing career is over.

Ismail will revive interest in the Canadian Football League, which, as a point of history, is older than the NFL but has been struggling to make the grade financially. From a realistic aspect and for a talent the caliber of Ismail, with glittering accomplishments at Notre Dame behind his name, it means he'll be laboring in comparative professional obscurity.

The CFL is considerably below the NFL in quality and the public, both in the Dominion and the United States, has never accepted its existence as a true major league. The first important NFL draftee who went to Canada was Billy Vessels, who in 1952 won the Heisman Trophy at Oklahoma, and signed with the Edmonton Eskimos instead of the Baltimore Colts.

Then in 1972, Johnny Rodgers of Nebraska won the Heisman but instead of signing in the NFL joined the now defunct Montreal Alouettes. Rodgers, as with Vessels, changed his mind and returned to the San Diego Chargers after four seasons. In the case of Vessels, after being voted the outstanding player in Canada as a rookie, spent two years in the Army.

The capabilities of Vessels and Rodgers left little doubt they could have been immediate standouts had they reported to the NFL after their college years. So it is with Ismail.

After every touchdown, via run or pass reception in Toronto, he's going to wonder, which will be a natural reaction, if the same effort would have gained a similar result against NFL rivals. That's why it's reasonable to expect the Rocket will eventually want to come back.

Deep within the heart of every athlete is a desire to go against the best. And for a football player of Ismail's immense qualifications, the ultimate is the NFL, which is where he belongs. At Notre Dame, where he's giving up his final year of eligibility, the Rocket was more than a captivating nickname.

He averaged 21 yards per reception, rushed for 7.5 yards a try, showed a mark of 26.5 yards on kickoff returns and 13.9 yards bringing back punts during three seasons.

On his 17 Notre Dame touchdowns, the statistic figured out to be nothing less than astonishing. Each of those scores averaged 62 yards, which tells you he was carrying the ball from far, far away and not punching it across inside the 10. The Heisman Trophy winner of 1990 was Ty Detmer of Brigham Young, which was a bad selection.

Ismail deserved the recognition, considering the schedule Notre Dame faced and the fact he represented the best college football had to offer, which is the premise of the award. He has made a momentous deal in Toronto, where the crowds last year were only 21,000 in a 60,000-seat stadium. The Rocket will sell tickets and, in the process, enhance Canadian football.

He took the other signing option, which is good for the NFL since it proves it is not a monopoly and will serve as strong evidence when the courts again review legality of the draft.

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