Raghib Ismail walks softly while his teammates chatter and whistle as they file into South Dining Hall on the Notre Dame campus. At the training table the players load up on complex carbohydrates, replacing those coach Lou Holtz has wrung from them at practice. They decry the food's blandness, but no one stops eating. Once filled, they settle down and begin to spin football versions of campfire tales. Ismail listens as these young, gifted, national champion football players revisit those stirring days when they were big fish in small high school ponds. Then they talk about reality—how they came to South Bend and discovered how ordinary they were in the context of one another and the history of Notre Dame football.
At Notre Dame, they use Heisman trophies for paperweights; seven of the Fighting Irish have won the prize. At Notre Dame, greatness is expected, and the players gathered at this meal have the potential for greatness. This is why they have been invited, why they have come. In some, the trait is not obvious; in others, it is apparent. Leading this bull session is Derek Brown, a 6'7", 235-pound sophomore tight end from Merritt Island, Fla., who runs the 40 in 4.55 and has clear eyes, a ready grin and hands that resemble baby octopuses. He speaks like the debating team captain.
"Zorich—that's all you need to say," Brown says, referring to Notre Dame's All-America nosetackle. "Remember that practice when Chris told the seniors, 'Now which one of you is going to test me?' Remember that game when he finished with one guy, looked down and said, 'I crushed you, worm.' "
"Lyght," says a sophomore end named Tony Smith. "Never saw a cornerback like Todd, so smooth, so fluid."
September 24, 1989
"Ricky Watters—wow, he has the quickest feet in the universe," says Brown of the Irish's starting tailback. "There is just so much talent here. It makes you proud and humbles you."
But who is the quickest among them? The fastest? Now there is no debate, except from Ismail, the heretofore-silent, 5'10", 175-pound, 19-year-old sophomore they call Rocket. "Rock is the quickest," says Ismail's roommate, cornerback Rusty Setzer, who, as a high school senior, was the Indiana state champion at 100 meters. "I thought I was quick...."
"No, no, no," Ismail protests, his excitable tenor-baritone rising. It's a voice that pierces the dining hall. All heads turn. "Rusty's stronger than me. All these guys are. They're for real."
Brown smiles and says, "Raghib is the fastest. Tell the truth, Rocket."
Earlier, Ismail had admitted in a whisper that his personal best in the 40 is a fairly amazing 4.28. Running 55-meter dashes, he did not lose a single heat for the Irish track team during last winter's indoor season. "He said 4.28?" asks Brown. "He ran 4.18."
"No, no, no!"
"Oh, yeah," says Setzer. "And it was on the fourth 40 of the day, too, wasn't it, guys? Four-point-18. Man. That's flying. Even at Notre Dame, that's flying."
"I caught the gun on that one," says Ismail. He assumes his sprinter's stance, his back nearly parallel to the floor. He looks smaller, more vulnerable than his teammates. Then he explodes out of the stance, blasting off his right foot. His jeans are gathered at the ankles, revealing the rock formation of his right calf at lift-off. He explodes five feet across the floor before his left foot hits the ground. The Rocket Start. "See?" he asks.
The words of coach Holtz come to mind. "I'd never heard of a good football player named Raghib," Holtz had said. "At his size, how good could he be? I wasn't high on him. Then I went to his hometown, Wilkes-Barre [Pa.]. I loved his personality. I could sense this was someone people genuinely loved. There was something special about him. Intensity. Awareness. Unselfishness. I didn't realize he was as fast as he turned out to be. He's fast. At the beginning of last season he didn't start. We put him in only on long passes. That changed when the defensive backs started backpedaling the moment we broke the huddle. Rocket is beyond quick."
"I can overthrow him, sure," Notre Dame's quarterback, Tony Rice, once said, "as long as I throw it while he's still in his stance."
Last year, when Notre Dame went undefeated and won the national title, Raghib Ismail, a freshman, caught 13 passes for 354 yards—27.2 yards per catch—and two touchdowns. He led the Irish in all-purpose running (836 yards), and he led the nation in kickoff return average (36.1). His two kickoff returns—of 88 and 92 yards—for touchdowns last Saturday against Michigan (preceding story) matched his total for last season, when he scored on two returns, of 83 and 87 yards, against Rice.
This season, Holtz has shifted Ismail from split end to flanker, the spot once occupied by Tim Brown, who owns one of those Notre Dame Heismans. "We have to get the ball to Rocket as often as we can," says Holtz. "He's the closest to a sure thing as there can be here."
Finally, the players push themselves away from the training table. At sunset Ismail takes a visitor for a stroll around the campus and reflects on how he, born of Islamic parents, taken in by a grandmother who gave him the choice of going to her Protestant church or going hungry, had come to enroll at the mighty Catholic university.
"Raghib fills my heart with such joy," his mother, Fatma, has said. "Raghib says to the world, I am joy, enthusiasm, gratitude, praises and love. In Arabic, Raghib means 'He who is desirous to serve his Lord.' Raghib is the head of our family. Raghib's word is law."
"I feel a power in me greater than myself," Ismail says. "Once I was running an outdoor 100 meters. I think I was timed in 10.20. It was a nice warm track. I could almost see my body coming out of itself, if that makes sense. It was like, Wow! Am I touching the ground at all? It was like flying, like no effort at all! So I know I am blessed. I can only thank Almighty God."
Ismail balances his dual role—of being the head of his family and a brilliant young student-athlete on the ascent—with a wisdom, presence and patience beyond his years. You would like to know how such a young man came to be, especially these days. You would like to know where to find the cookie cutter.
The girl didn't want to remember her name, so she became a dreamer in order to forget. In this life she was unsatisfactory. She was worse than nothing. She was from Bolivar, Miss., and was now living in northwest Detroit. Somehow she didn't consider it living. Her parents, Larn and Mazer Moore, were tall, handsome, striking people, as were her two brothers and two sisters. "I was short, dark; I felt unattractive," says Fatma Ismail. She fights back tears and looks at the ceiling of the living room in the white two-story house in Wilkes-Barre. "My only friend was my grandmother. We looked alike."
When she lost touch with her grandmother, America Jackson, the girl said goodbye to reality. Soon after, she heard someone calling to her. Impeccable men in bow ties were selling produce and prophecy from the back of a fruit truck. The dreamer accepted their version of El-Islam. Even though it would not make her beautiful, it would let her cover her shame in the full dress of a Muslim woman. When she met a man named Ibrahim Ismail some years later, she was working for an optometrist and showing nothing but her eyes. Still, she couldn't believe them. Her name was now Fatma, which means "The favored daughter of the prophet, over the women of paradise."
"Ibrahim was brilliant," Fatma says. "He was about 5'10", but he had a commanding presence about him. When he came into a room, he commanded it. I found myself swept away by him."
One of Ibrahim Ismail's legs was nearly two inches shorter than the other, the result of a crippling fall when he was five years old. His kidneys would soon fail. But he had traveled, seen, done. He had converted to the Sunni Muslim sect by the time he was 21. He made Fatma feel that she was what she had never been—beautiful, wise, worthy of respect. So, when he spoke in fluent Arabic and broken English, there was no reason for her not to believe that he was from Khartoum, the capital city of the Sudan, as he claimed. Where else could he be from? Well, his parents were from Brunswick, Ga., and he had been raised in Elizabeth, N.J. But a Muslim man in muslin wrappings who speaks Arabic and comes from New Jersey would be considered strange, if not nuts. Such a man from the Sudan, however, might be a prophet.
"I accepted it, even though I suspected for a long time that it wasn't true," says Fatma. "Only later did he tell me it was this incredible facade." Not so incredible. In the 1940s, '50s and early '60s, a black man from the South who wanted to eat at a fancy restaurant in Atlanta, Birmingham or Biloxi was out of luck. But what if he felt he could chew, swallow and digest fine food as well as the next man? He could put on a turban, speak another language, go back to that same restaurant in that same time and be given a smile of bewilderment and a seat by the window. Sometimes, in the course of history, incredible facades are the order of the day.
"He was a brilliant man," says Fatma. "He had traveled abroad, and he knew the true nature of El-Islam, not the Black Muslim stuff. He gave lectures on religious jurisprudence and raised money for the Muslim community, traveling to the Middle East and meeting with leaders. He told me he had dreamed he would meet a wife. He met me. What can I tell you? I loved him."
Ibrahim and Fatma married in 1963 and moved back to Elizabeth, then to Newark in 1967. Newark was where Fatma gave birth to Raghib (RAHG-ib) on Nov. 18, 1969, Qadry (KAH-dree, "the strong and powerful") a year later and Sulaiman (SOO-lay-mahn, "the wise") two years later. On the birth certificates of all three boys the parents' birthplaces were listed as the Sudan. The sons were raised in the Islamic culture and called their mother and father by the Arabic honorifics, Ume and Abua.
The boys went to the Sister Clara Muhammad School in Newark and traveled to other Islamic schools and mosques in cities around New Jersey and New York. They won admiration for their poise, their mastery of the multiplication tables and the ease with which they read verses from the Koran.
"If there was a father who could give love and understanding, and teach his children about faith and share whatever he had with his sons, it was Ibrahim," says Fatma. She is in the living room of the house owned by her mother-in-law, Laura Bauknight, in Wilkes-Barre. Raghib and Qadry are at her side. "He could call their names and they would be obedient. He had that kind of voice, that kind of effect on them."
"Knowledge," Raghib says. "My father gave me a thirst for knowledge. He said it was the key to everything. He wanted us to learn. Obedient? Well, there was no such thing as talking back to your parents."
Qadry is much like Raghib, though two inches taller, more ebullient, less reflective, more spontaneous. He is a red-shirt freshman defensive back at Syracuse. On Sept. 9, against Temple, Qadry ran back a kick 56 yards to set up a touchdown. As seniors together at Meyers High in Wilkes-Barre, the brothers did the city proud in the state Class AA track and field meet: Qadry set state high school records in the 110-meter hurdles (14.04) and the 300 intermediate hurdles (37.56), and ran a leg of the 4 X 100 relay team that had a record time of 42.65; Raghib won the 100 meters and for the second straight year the long jump (24'3½"), and anchored the 4 X 100 relay. On the football team, Qadry was the fullback, Raghib the tailback. George Novak, coach of Woodland Hills High, near Pittsburgh, called Raghib "the best running back I've seen come out of high school since Tony Dorsett." Qadry drew accolades of his own, but none of that order.
"Raghib and I are very close," says Qadry. "But he visited Notre Dame and fell in love with the place." Qadry could have had a track scholarship to Notre Dame and likely would have made the football team, although there was no guarantee. But, says Raghib, "more important, Qadry could not have grown in my shadow. I hated it when people called him Raghib's little brother. I told him, 'You're your own man.' He didn't want to redshirt at Syracuse because I didn't. He said, 'Raghib, I'm ready to roll.' I told him, 'Just wait, brother. Just be patient.' "
"Raghib holds us together," says Fatma. "He calms and soothes us."
Sixteen-year-old Sulaiman enters the room from above, gently helping his grandmother down the stairs. The boys had lived with Bauknight, whom they call Nina, while they attended Meyers, but now she has advancing Alzheimer's disease and they must care for her. Sulaiman feigns disinterest in the talk of his brothers. He is a brown belt in karate and does well in geometry. He says he doesn't care for the language arts and, especially, team sports, although he does play football. When you go to school behind two legendary brothers, the pressures on you can be immense. His brothers realize this.
"Sulaiman has more talent than Raghib and me put together," says Qadry.
Sulaiman is too young to clearly remember his father.
Raghib sits with a straight back in a small conference room in the Athletic and Convocation Center at Notre Dame. The memory of his father brings a smile to his face. "Sometimes I ask myself, how did I become fast?" he says. "I don't remember trying to be. I just remember trying to please my father. He invented things for us. Our secret-secret place was just a diner in Newark. To us, it was a mighty hall where our father took us to discuss knowledge and life and personal stuff. He was sick a lot. But he still played with us, and raced with us. After he became very sick he would come to the window to watch us race. And if my father came to that window above me, I ran like the wind for him."
Ibrahim's kidneys failed him, and he began dialysis treatment about the time Sulaiman was starting to walk. His temper became shorter, his behavior more erratic and unpredictable. Fatma knew that her husband was dying, and the dreaming girl inside her knew that there was a hidden truth.
"We had never been questioned, not really," says Fatma. "Even I didn't realize the whole truth, and I had met Mrs. Bauknight when we first moved to New Jersey. It never fully dawned on me. I knew I wasn't from the Sudan, but it never, ever occurred to me that Ibrahim wasn't. Then, after Qadry was born, he told me the whole truth."
No one questioned their origins, at least not openly. "People felt they were dealing with a different culture, and they didn't want to offend it," says Fatma. "We were never challenged." In the end, the flaw of any incredible facade is that it becomes too difficult to keep the lie together, to keep the lie from tying itself into a knot around your life. Nothing good can be held together by a lie. Not forever.
Raghib knew what was happening when a family friend took him and Qadry to the hospital on March 21, 1980. Ibrahim lay dying. Qadry, nine at the time, says, "I'll never forget it. His nose was bleeding and they kept wiping it. There was an odor in the air, an odor I'll never forget. They said your dad's going with Allah now. I wondered if that meant he was alive or dead. I looked at Raghib and he was holding it in. But I couldn't. I cried and cried."
The religious men told Raghib that now that his father was with Allah, he, Raghib, was the head of the family. "I wanted the responsibility of taking care of everything, being mature," he says, "but I was only 10."
Ibrahim's death left Fatma with a sense of utter helplessness. "Fatma was always completely dependent on her husband," says her close friend Beverly Ballard, who had also embraced Islam. "I woke up before Fatma did. Men have always translated the Koran for their benefit. The women are getting tired of the oppression."
At Ballard's urging, Fatma went to work. She worked in department stores, selling handbags and cosmetics, in Ann's Beauty Salon as a hairstylist, and even tended bar at the Starting Line Lounge. Raghib worried that she might be working too hard and at one point gently said to her, "Ume, I think you might be staying out a little too late." In the end, the jobs were not enough to keep the boys in the Sister Clara Muhammad School. Raghib, Qadry and Sulaiman transferred to Martin Luther King Junior High, where their scholarship was not appreciated. As a seventh-grader, Qadry outscored everyone in the eighth grade at King on a standardized achievement test. "There was one kid at the King school named Lester, must have been 16," says Raghib. "We would get up to read in class and this kid would want to fight us. It was like a nightmare. We didn't understand it."
"A teacher, Mrs. Calhoun, told me to come to school and watch my sons try to give a book report, to see how they were jeered," says Fatma. "She said, 'You have to get your sons out of here, to a place where they can learn.' "
At first, Raghib did not want to move to Wilkes-Barre to live with his grandmother. On reflection, it was the best thing that could have happened. "She knew what was right," says Raghib of his mother's painful decision. Fatma told Raghib that unless he went, the other two boys would never go. They needed his leadership. In the summer of 1983, Sulaiman moved into Bauknight's house. Raghib and Qadry followed in the fall.
"It's funny, talking about cultural differences. Wilkes-Barre was like night and day from Newark," says Raghib.
What kind of name is Raghib?
Where do you get that kind of name?
What do you mean, El-Islam?
Where is your mother from?
Fat Ma? You have a Fat Ma? Fat Ma Fat Ma Fat Ma Fat Ma....
"I had to fight over that last one, that 'Fat Ma,' " says Sulaiman.
Raghib says, "People couldn't say my name in Wilkes-Barre. In Newark, or East Orange, when I told someone my name was Raghib, they said Raghib from then on."
Says Qadry, "Sometimes people would say, 'Why can't you have an easier name?' Like what? Krzyszewski?"
"There were some problems with racist behavior, some incidents, but not nearly as many as there could have been," says Fatma. "Again, it was the cultural turn of being Ismail. If my boys had been named Jones, they could only have gone as far as people let them. Ismail? You can go as far as you want."
Bauknight had her own plan for her sudden family. She had never cared for this religion that her son, whom she had named Abraham, had jammed down her grandsons' throats. These boys would worship her way, at her church. "And if we didn't go—no church, no food," says Qadry.
"Out of vengeance, she did that," says Fatma. "She never told the truth about Ibrahim and myself to the boys. I think she had too much respect for her son for that. But she felt if she could change their religion, she could change everything else. She hated El-Islam."
As Raghib and Qadry advanced in high school, Bauknight began to show signs of Alzheimer's. Fatma decided to move into her mother-in-law's house. With Bauknight slipping away, the dreaming girl inside Fatma began to awaken. She agonized about telling her sons the truth. She agonized about the cost of revealing the deception not only to them but also to those in Wilkes-Barre who had been kind to her family. There was Marguerite Latinski, Raghib and Qadry's eighth-grade English teacher, who, upon meeting the boys for the first time, told Fatma that she immediately knew "that these children had come from love." And Mickey Gorham, the Meyers High football coach. And there was Malcolm Conway, the family's physician; and Robert Elias, the lawyer for whom Fatma worked as a clerk. When these good people asked Fatma where she was from, she averted her eyes.
But the charade had worked. It accomplished her purpose—if her purpose was to give positive identities to her sons while disguising her own. The faith offered dignity, the deception offered a hiding place.
This past Mother's Day, the fear that she would not be accepted for herself nearly paralyzed Fatma as she sat down in the living room to tell her sons that she and Ibrahim were not from the Sudan; he was from New Jersey, she from Mississippi. She broke out in a cold sweat. "And, finally, I just told them," she says, "and waited."
Sulaiman looked at his mother in his whimsical, wise way, then hugged her and said, "I love you, Ume." Saying that has always been hard for Sulaiman.
Qadry didn't seem shocked: "I couldn't have a better best friend, Ume."
Raghib, calm and emphatic, did not appear surprised, either. He said, "You still look the same to me. You still feel the same to me. You are still my Ume."
The truth, no matter how painful, can rarely undo good already done. "If he had been Raghib Jones, maybe he would have bought into that environment," says Fatma. "I am sorry for the charade. It has caused me great pain." It has also helped give her three fine sons.
Raghib knew that Notre Dame was where he belonged when he first set foot on the campus during a recruiting visit. There, the academic, the athletic and the spiritual coexist comfortably. Ninety percent of its students played a varsity sport in high school. Some 672 teams play in the bookstore basketball tournament. There are the Bengal Bouts, four days of boxing for all comers. It is a place for the healthy, the young, the gifted—like Raghib. "The hardest thing is not having Qadry here," he says. "But he had to go his own way, be his own man."
"It feels like Raghib runs with me, whenever I run," says Qadry. "I just miss him, that's all. But Raghib says we must be strong, and I don't want to let Raghib down."
"I've always been different, anywhere I've been," says Raghib. "So really, strange as this sounds, this is familiar to me. I thank Almighty God for the chance to come here." Then he says, "I don't know what Almighty God really prefers to be called, and neither do you. I am just a young man. Some things are not for me to know yet. But I do know that this feeling is in me when I try my best, run my fastest. It is a gift. When I run, I try and run like the wind because I know someone is watching me from the sky. And I hope the goodness I feel in me will stay when I stop running."