TORONTO -- It's the first Saturday of October, and professional sports have fans in Toronto on cloud nine. Earlier in the week, the Blue Jays' clinching of the American League East brought downtown traffic to a standstill, and on this night the much-awaited opener of the Maple Leafs hockey season has scalpers asking -- and getting -- premium prices.
Barely noticed in all the excitement are the Argonauts, Toronto's representative in the Canadian Football League. But some 35,000 fans are at SkyDome this night. And as Toronto's Raghib Ismail gathers in the opening kickoff at his goal line and then bursts first across, and then upfield, in an electrifying, 58-yard return, the roar tells why they've come: to see the "Rocket" launched.
"I just love the way he plays," said Argonauts slotback Andrew Murray, a native of Ontario, after watching an Ismail punt return set up the game-winning field goal against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. "I'm a fan. I was a fan of his at Notre Dame and I would always watch on TV. He's a talent."
That talent will earn Ismail an estimated $4.5 million a year for the next four years, and whether he's worth it remains to be seen. He's had a more-than-respectable year, helping lead his team to Sunday's Eastern Division final against the Blue Bombers, but the real value of the man Penn State coach Joe Paterno once called "one of the three or four best players ever to play college football" is in generating interest in the franchise and helping save the eight-team CFL.
"Our attendance is up [about 15,000 a game, to 36,000] and TV viewership in this league has tripled," said Argonauts general manager Michael McCarthy, who added the league has discussed expanding into the United States.
"Part of the plan in getting him was to promote and sell the league, and that's worked out quite well. The franchises are all going to be stable, which is due to this young man. He has helped the team and league in general."
Savior of the league? The shy 21-year-old Ismail -- who punctuates most responses with his favorite word, "dude" -- just laughs. Even though his personal services contract is worth more a year than the entire payroll of some CFL teams, Ismail looks at himself as just one of the guys.
"People are coming to the games to see what's going on, and when they see guys like [teammates] Darrell K. Smith and Mike Clemons they'll realize it's not just a one-man thing," Ismail said. "So, dude, I haven't felt any pressure at all."
If you haven't heard about Ismail's year in the CFL, you aren't alone. It seems like Canadians -- as well as Americans -- ignore this league. CFL teams do not have nearly the visibility of an NFL team during its season or, it seems, the prestige.
"They're no NFL, they're just the Argonauts," said Mike Libby, a Toronto card shop owner who displays NFL cards -- and not CFL cards. "Here you have one of the best young players in the world, and attendance is not up all that much [the Argonauts play before an average of 17,000 empty seats, while the Blue Jays and the Maple Leafs entertain sell-out crowds.] Baseball and hockey are what's happening."
Ismail, who played in sold-out stadiums during his college career, has noticed the couldn't-care-less attitude of fans toward the Argonauts.
"You know how sports in a lot of cities is trendy -- trendy to do this, trendy to do that," said the Ismail, wearing a black leather Notre Dame cap. "Baseball is the place to be, to be seen. The CFL, that's something people don't want to go to or don't want to be seen at."
What have they missed? A regular season during which Ismail -- playing mainly as a receiver -- finished with the second-best combined yardage in league history (2,959), scored a team-leading 13 touchdowns, and finished second on the Argonauts in receiving (64 receptions for 1,300 yards).
Playing on a field 12 yards wider, he broke just one kickoff return for a touchdown (at Notre Dame, using speed clocked at 4.28 seconds in the 40-yard --, he broke five). But he did win the division Rookie of the Year in helping the Argonauts to a league-best 13-5 record.
"Basically his input has been phenomenal," said Argonauts coach Adam Rita. "There were critics about his receiving, but I think that's a bad rap on him because they [Notre Dame] didn't throw the ball much. More important is his overall skill."
Ismail also has the skill to win people over, and that came in handy. An injury kept him out of part of training camp and the first regular-season game, leading to harsh criticism from teammates still in shock over his salary. The press also blasted Ismail, and tried to fuel a feud with slotback Darrell Smith who, while Ismail was hurt and in Los Angeles, was quoted in the Toronto Sun as saying: "We need him practicing. This is the big leagues, whether he thinks so or not."