Rocket will ride first-class on trip to oblivion


April 23, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

What happened was Rocket Ismail got up in front of the cameras and microphones and smiled that million-dollar smile and said: "This is a dream come true for me. Ever since I was a kid I've wanted to play for the Toronto Argonauts."

OK, not really.

What happened was he got up in front of the cameras and microphones and smiled that million-dollar smile and said: "This is so exciting. I wish I could put on a uniform and go play the Saskatchewan Roughriders today."

OK, OK, not really.

What did happen (really this time) was he got up and said what everyone already knew -- he was now a very, very rich Rocket -- and didn't say what everyone also already knew: that he would be playing in a low-rent league inferior even to the Wide, Wide World League of Desert Storm Football, or whatever all that nonsense with the helmet camera is called.

And then, when the cameras went dark and the microphones were turned off and Ismail turned and walked into the sunset with Bruce McNall, the owner of the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League, the conversation probably went along these lines:

Rocket: "What'dya say the name of your team was? The what-Donuts?"

McNall: "The Argonauts. It's phonetic. Ar-go-nots."

Rocket: "Ah. And what teams do you play?"

McNall: "The Ti-Cats. The Blue Bombers. The Eskimos."

Rocket: "Oh, man, Eskimos? And how long is my contract?"

Let's get something straight. You can't blame Rocket for taking the bucket of money McNall threw at him. Not in a hundred years can you blame him. He will get maybe twice as much as he would have from an NFL team. It was way, way more than he would be worth to an NFL team, far too much to turn down.

This was his moment, and he used it for all it was worth. He is a very fast, very fragile, very publicized part-time player who doesn't have a position, touches the ball 10 times a game and probably would have gotten injured a lot in the NFL. Now he has $18 million. It was anything but foolish.

(No, the fool is McNall, who, with co-owners John Candy and Wayne Gretzky, spent almost four times as much to sign Rocket as it took to buy the entire team. It's like pouring gold over a bowl of corn flakes. They'll never get their money back.)

Let's get something else straight, though. Rocket is going to be miserable. Rich and miserable. His agents sold his football soul. The CFL is the end of the professional sporting earth. It is the jock version of the witness-protection program. Sign up and no one ever sees you again. You might as well be a third-team goalie in the Italian hockey league.

Rocket can score a hundred touchdowns a year in the CFL -- and he might, considering the caliber of the opposition -- but no one will know or care other than the mother of the head coach of the Saskatoon Mother Lodes. (Real or fictional team? Test your CFL knowledge.)

Not even Canadians care about the CFL. Well, a few do. But most long ago turned their eyes to the NFL. The people in Toronto are more interested in the Buffalo Bills than the Argonauts. (Incidently, I looked it up in the dictionary. "Argon" is an inert gaseous element. So I guess that makes an Argonaut, well, hm, maybe I need to dig a little more.)

McNall says he hopes Ismail will revive interest in the league. Who is he kidding? These savior schemes can work for one team, as they did for McNall's Los Angeles Gretzkys, but one player can't hold up an entire league. For every CFL game in which Ismail appears, there will be three in which he doesn't.

Here is a hunch: McNall doesn't care about the rest of the CFL. He wants to put the rest of the CFL out of business. He wants an NFL team. Toronto has a beautiful domed stadium and a sports-mad public. If the Argonauts start drawing huge crowds, maybe some people in the NFL will notice. Ismail is his lure.

Of course, McNall won't get far in the NFL spending that kind of mad money on players. That runs contrary to the unwritten bylaws of the owners, who, you will notice, stood together in refusing to spend "baseball" money on Ismail, preventing a baseball-like salary escalation. (Oh, I found "Argonaut" in the encyclopedia. They were sailors who went in search of the Golden Fleece. Is that perfect or what?)

Anyway, unless the CFL folds, or unless Rocket sends you a postcard, you won't hear of him until 1995, when his contract is up and he is palpitating at the idea of coming to the NFL. (These jTC next four years, it'll be easier to find beach volleyball highlights than a shot of the Rocket running back a punt. And to think this is a guy who had designs on being a Bo-like media star. Whoo boy, forget that.)

Rocket, meanwhile, probably will enjoy Toronto, a terrific city, and definitely will enjoy his bucket of money. But by 1995 he will have had enough of being nothing more than the scourge of the Eskimos. He will want to play some real pro football before he gets too old. And he will sign a contract with the Los Angeles Raiders. And people will say, "Oh yeah, remember him?"

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