These events occurred almost simultaneously in this winter of 1991: 1) Raghib (Rocket) Ismail of Notre Dame announced that he would forfeit his final year of collegiate eligibility to enter the NFL draft, and 2) several men in well-tailored suits hatched a plan to launch Rocket into orbit in a sports-marketing galaxy inhabited only by the likes of Magic, Michael and Bo.
Ismail's marketeers can see a day when America's young will be able to pull on Rocket hightops—careful not to snag the laces on the tiny metallic afterburners—and pop into convenience stores to pick up milk chocolate Rocket Bars. The candy could be right next to the microwaveable Rocket burritos, and only one aisle over from a soda cooler filled with Rocket Fuel, the sports drink in the bottle with the aerodynamic fins. Back home again, the kids could flick on the tube and watch Rocket the cartoon hero go head-to-head with Rocket J. Squirrel for the four- to 24-year-old viewing audience.
During the otherwise unremarkable January afternoon on which he announced his decision, Ismail was transformed from a mild-mannered college junior to a mild-mannered tycoon-in-the-making, from a spritely flanker and kick returner to the centerpiece of a budding conglomerate called Team Rocket. Hey, NASA, can't you find some promotional tie-in with this Rocket guy?
So heady are all the commercial possibilities that Ed Abram, for one, urges restraint. Abram is one half of Morcom Sports Enterprises, the agency that will negotiate Ismail's NFL contract with whichever team lands his rights. He is also a much smaller fraction of Team Rocket, a squad of negotiators, litigators, accountants and endorsement specialists whose power ties, laid end to end, would exceed the average length of Ismail's 15 career touchdowns at Notre Dame—62 yards.
February 25, 1991
"Mr. Ish-male does not want to oversaturate himself," says Abram, meaning, actually, that Ismail doesn't want to oversaturate us. "Mr. Ish-male docs not want to become another John Madden."
That's ISS-my-el, Ed, the first syllable rhyming with the drawn-out "hiss" that arose from Ismail's Notre Dame teammates during film sessions whenever he was seen touching the ball—"to imitate the sound of a lit fuse," says NFL-bound Irish linebacker Michael Stonebreaker.
The nice thing about Rocket's decision to turn pro early is that a sweet, virtuous young man will be financially secure for life. Of course, it also happens that the correct pronunciation of Raghib (that's RAHG-ib) Ismail—a cool name that deserves to be recited correctly—will probably remain a mystery, as it was throughout his three-year career at Notre Dame. Abram was one of four Team Rocket members who got together recently in the 30th-floor conference room of Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison, a San Francisco law firm, to consume a catered lunch and talk about their meal ticket. Jon Edwards, a 31-year-old corporate-litigation specialist and an associate at the firm, is the team's legal counsel. On this day, the handsome view usually commanded from the law firm's offices—of San Francisco Bay and Treasure Island, two miles away—was obscured by low clouds and intermittent rain. Inside, the mood was bright and unabashedly self-congratulatory.
"With us, a kid already has a negotiator, an athletic representative, an attorney, a financial planner," said Louis Duvernay, Abram's partner and the more reserved half of Morcom. "This way, it's not a situation where he has an agent who has to bring in these strangers on the spur of the moment."
"And it's cost-efficient," said Ralph Grant, a former IRS agent and now an accountant whose clients range from pop singer Pebbles to California Congressman Ronald Dellums. "We are specialists. We do what we do well. We have refined and perfected it over the years. It's not like some agent trying to understand it, then clumsily trying to do it."
"This is not something the other agents look with favor upon," said Abram of the team concept. "We're upsetting the cart. Changing things."
Ismail chose this collection of relative unknowns over a myriad of full-service "name" agents who had clamored to represent him. Bob Woolf had made the trip from Boston to the Ismails' house in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Marvin Demoff, Leigh Steinberg and Steve Zucker also offered their services. Robert Elias, a Wilkes-Barre lawyer who employs Raghib's mother, Fatma, as a legal secretary, fielded calls every day for a month. Dr. Malcolm Conway, a Wilkes-Barre chiropractor with whom the Ismails are close, received as many as 20 calls a day. Conway's callers included three different people from ProServ, the Arlington, Va.-based agency that represents Michael Jordan.
"Morcom Enterprises?" asked one rival agent when Rocket finally made his decision. "How did those guys get Ismail? Who are those guys?"
Let us answer these questions in order.
Before anyone could "get" Ismail, the Irish star had to first renege on a vow he had made and repeated throughout the 1990 season, that he would return to Notre Dame for his senior year. "Once you're out of college, you're fair game for anyone," Ismail said in late October. "You're going to have to have lawyers and all that stuff, and that sounds like a big headache."
Four days after the Irish beat Southern Cal to end their regular season—a game in which ABC analyst Bob Griese continually referred to Ismail as "ISH-may-el"—the Rocket was presented with the Walter Camp Football Foundation's Player of the Year award. After rendering the winner's name "Ra-HEEB ISH-may-el," foundation president Kevin O'Brien discussed the history of the trophy. The assembled media listened respectfully for roughly 90 seconds, then got down to brass tacks. "Rocket," someone asked, "will you be back next year?"
"My plans are definitely to stay," Ismail said. "I won't be leaving early, not unless my mom passes away or something."
That offhand response proved to be somewhat prophetic, though the Ismails would not themselves be touched by tragedy. On Jan. 2, the day after Notre Dame's one-point loss to Colorado in the Orange Bowl, Irish noseguard Chris Zorich returned home to Chicago to find his mother, Zora, dead on the floor of her apartment. On Jan. 24, Ismail announced that he would declare himself eligible for the draft after all, and he cited as the reason for his decision the death of Zora Zorich. "I want to be able to do something for my family," said Ismail. "[Zora's death] was just a reminder to me that no matter how carefully you plan, nothing is going to happen the way you expect it to."
But was that the sole reason for his change of heart? Here Ismail wavers. "The whole decision was a big ordeal," he says. "It wasn't any one thing that happened overnight."
Other factors in The Decision:
•Life in a Fishbowl. Private and exceedingly modest, Ismail had only grudgingly accepted his role as South Bend's latest legend-in-residence. Even his Grace Hall dorm room did not provide sanctuary from the alumni, autograph seekers, friends of friends, and other admirers who came knocking—and still come knocking—at all hours. Ismail and roommate Rusty Setzer often pretend they are not in. To keep down the interruptions, they removed their room number from Grace Hall's alphabetized directory.
One middle-aged fellow tracked them down anyway. While signing an autograph for the fan, Ismail asked, "Would you mind telling us how you found us?"
"Actually," said the stranger, "it was quite simple." He had sifted through the directory's 274 room numbers and deduced which room was Ismail's by process of elimination.
At the Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York in early December, after Ismail finished second in the voting behind Ty Detmer of BYU (and after a Downtown Athletic Club functionary introduced him as "Ra-JEEB Iz-my-ELL"), one writer made a debatable point. Once you're in the NFL, he told Ismail, the media glare is likely to intensify.
"The difference," said Ismail, "is that then I'd be getting paid for it." What Rocket didn't say was that it was probably more difficult to handle celebrity while fulfilling his obligations as a student than it will be as a full-time football player.
•Timing. As the 1990 season progressed, no other player emerged to challenge Ismail as the potential No. 1 pick in the '91 NFL draft in April. One NFL general manager described Ismail as "this year's Jeff George," referring to last year's top pick and meaning that Ismail was a spectacular enough talent to trade up for. There were no guarantees that Rocket could hold that spot until the 1992 draft.
Team Rocket members admit that the NFL's perennial threat to impose a wage scale on rookies—a move that has done more than anything else to flush underclassmen out of college—also influenced Ismail.
•Restlessness. With his finely tuned sense of what sounds unduly egotistical, Raghib never would have said what his younger brother, Qadry, a wide receiver at Syracuse, said of him last December: "If he's proved everything he can prove at one level, it's time for him to prove himself at the next level. It's natural for him to want to move on."
And so, on Dec. 30, two days before the Orange Bowl, Ismail approached Heygood Images Productions and asked for help in obtaining representation. Heygood proceeded to assemble the disparate group of businessmen that comprise Team Rocket. Where did Ismail find Heygood Images? He didn't, really. It found him.
In the summer of 1989, Ralph Heygood Wiley, then a senior writer for, and now a special contributor to SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, was assigned to write a story on Ismail, at the time a semi-obscure Notre Dame sophomore flanker with great speed but suspect hands. The piece appeared in the Sept. 25 issue of SI, a week after Ismail had riveted a national television audience—and prompted the overhaul of an entire Michigan special team—by returning a pair of kickoffs for touchdowns against the Wolverines. Wiley's admiration for Ismail jumped off the page. "You would like to know how such a young man came to be, especially these days," he wrote. "You would like to know where to find the cookie cutter." The admiration was mutual. In "The Ismail File" in the 1989 and '90 Notre Dame media guides, under "The most impressive person I've ever met," Ismail wrote, "Ralph Wiley of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED."
Since writing the SI story, Wiley has remained close to the Ismail family. Wiley, the president of Heygood Images, a company he set up in 1987 primarily to market his own film, TV and print projects, says he assisted Ismail in finding representation only because the family asked for his help. An unofficial member of Team Rocket, Wiley says that his company will earn $25,000 from Ismail's endorsements, which will go to the two assistants who did most of the legwork in assembling the team.
By Jan. 24, the day of Ismail's announcement, Team Rocket was in place and was facing its first major decision: Should the team retain a marketing specialist? Edwards, the litigator, was originally of the opinion that endorsement offers would simply flow in. But in a phone conversation with Wiley, ProServ's Jerry Solomon and David Falk, who represent 150 athletes, including Jordan, Patrick Ewing and Boomer Esiason, argued that such an assumption would be a costly mistake. When ProServ takes on a client, they insist on representing all of the athlete's interests. But, having lost out to Morcom for the rights to negotiate Ismail's NFL contract, ProServ was willing to make an exception for Rocket. So they hammered home their message to Wiley: Athletic excellence does not translate automatically into mega-endorsements. Recalling his conversation with Wiley, Falk ticks off some grim examples: "Notre Dame had a pretty good kick returner three years ago, but we haven't really seen much of Tim Brown since. Walter Payton went almost his entire career without getting on television. It took Magic 10 years to get a name shoe!"
Team Rocket agreed to take a meeting with ProServ. For 2½ hours on a recent Sunday evening, in a suite at the Chicago O'Hare Hyatt, Solomon and Falk inundated Ismail, Wiley and Edwards with charts, storyboards and a six-minute video. The video included a testimonial to the firm from Jordan and also featured football footage of Ismail against the background voice of a NASA launch countdown. The ProServ pair had no way of knowing that Ismail's room at Notre Dame is wallpapered with posters of Jordan—11 in all. While watching the video, the 21-year-old Ismail found himself fighting off feelings of awe.
"At times, I'd think, 'Wow, that's me!' " Ismail recalls. "But I had a course last semester called Brand Advertising, and this was exactly what we'd learned about. It was a textbook presentation. I just had to keep reminding myself it was business."
Edwards earned his fee that evening. Solomon and Falk desperately wanted to get Ismail's signature that day, before they flew back to Washington, D.C. They would have gotten it, too, Ismail later admitted, had Edwards not been there. But Edwards told the ProServ people, "We'll get back to you." Four days later, after smoothing over a gnarly disagreement over finances—ProServ had initially wanted the standard 20% cut of any endorsements it lined up for Ismail, but it finally settled for less than half of that amount—the agency was invited aboard.
Solomon and Falk love everything about Ismail: his drop-dead nickname, his "wholesomeness," his "familiarity and favorability," the fact that he is "handsome and articulate." And though Ismail will be leaving school to play pro ball after he completes the spring semester, they intend to play up his "studiousness."
"He's very determined to graduate from Notre Dame," says Solomon. "It's extremely important to him. In fact, one of the things we've talked about is setting up a scholarship fund in the Newark area, where he grew up."
Falk says that it's too early to talk about specific endorsements. Then, in the next breath, he cites ProServ's cozy relationship with athletic-shoe and soft-drink companies, a restaurant chain, a breakfast cereal, an underwear manufacturer.
"Unlimited" is how both Falk and Solomon sum up Ismail's marketing potential. "It's rare for someone coming out of college to have such a highly defined persona," says Falk. "Michael's persona is of a flyer, a dunker, someone who plays above the rim. Ismail's is of someone speedy, elusive, nifty and, at the same time, of someone reassuringly ordinary." While his wondrous athletic skills are comparable to Jordan's, kids love Ismail because, at 5'10", he has some Mars Blackmon in him too.
ProServ wants to move quickly. Says Falk, "So much of this game is momentum." Solomon adds, "We're looking for companies that aren't going to just pay him a lot of money, then put him on a shelf. We want companies that will use him actively in their campaigns."
One detects in the members of Team Rocket a powerful desire to make a fast killing. And with good reason. There is no shortage of former high NFL draft picks whose careers never measured up to the hype that originally attended them. Yes, Ismail has the talent to be next season's Rookie of the Year. He might also be merely a special-teams player who gets to touch the ball only twice a game and, in marketing terms, falls off the face of the earth. Or he could suffer a career-ending injury. (And where have you gone, Brian Bosworth?)
The fact is, Rocket doesn't get football people quite as hot and bothered as he gets the marketing people. "He's got some flies on him," says one NFC East director of player personnel. The largest of those bugs is that as a return specialist and receiver, Ismail may have only limited impact, even as a kickoff returner. Most NFL kickers can crank the ball out of the end zone—or away from breakaway threats. And though he made dramatic improvement as a pass catcher during his junior year, Ismail is not ready to be a starting receiver in the NFL. "He could use another year to work on those skills," says the personnel director.
"He's got to get on a weight program, bulk up a little bit, come back and prove he can last a whole season," New York Giants director of player personnel Tom Boisture said before Ismail declared for the draft. Last season a thigh bruise kept the 175-pound Ismail out of one game and half of another—those were the Irish's only two regular-season losses—and limited his effectiveness in others. Said Boisture, "If he can't hold up for a whole season on the college level, there's no way he'll hold up on this level."
NFL scouts call Ismail "a luxury"—a talent who would appeal more to a team with a solid squad in place, a team just a fast body or two away from a playoff spot. That is hardly the description of the bad-beyond-belief New England Patriots, whose 1-15 record last season entitles them to the first pick in the draft.
These considerations will not prevent Team Rocket from reaching for the sky. Why? Because Ismail is simply the most thrilling football player in recent memory. His nullified 91-yard punt return in the Orange Bowl put an exclamation mark on the entire 1990 college season. The National reported last week that Ismail will ask for $15 million for five years, which would make him the NFL's second-highest wage-earner before he even plays a down. No one with Team Rocket would confirm or deny that figure, but one source close to the team says, "It's a good starting point."
Patriots CEO Sam Jankovich, less than two months on the job, won't say what he intends to do with the top pick. But New England needs cinder blocks, not gold-plated fixtures. Cleveland, Detroit, Dallas and Atlanta have reportedly expressed interest in Ismail.
But Patriots owner Victor Kiam may covet Ismail for purely economic reasons: Rocket is sure to be a draw at Foxboro Stadium, where attendance sank to an average of 38,953 last season. Ismail's only public reservation about going to the worst team in pro football was Foxboro's artificial turf, among the worst surfaces in the league. Said Jankovich, "We'll tear it up!" On Feb. 6, the Patriots announced plans to do precisely that, and to install natural turf.
Whoever selects Ismail will have to negotiate with Abram and Duvernay, the least-proved members of Team Rocket, with less than five years' experience as agents. Wiley, who has known Abram for 11 years, says Heygood Images steered Ismail to Morcom because "they were young and hungry, did their homework and had some very creative ideas." And they came cheap. Rather than take a percentage of all fees the client earns, as would a "full-service" agency, Morcom will reap just 4% of the football take.
Says Abram, "Given the black eye a lot of agents had given the business, we saw a need for a service for the young athlete coming out of school. We saw that if we were honest, and put athletes' needs up front, we could all make money and be successful and live happily ever after."
But happiness has been in short supply so far at Morcom. The only athletes it has represented are Alvoid Mays, a free-agent defensive back most recently with the Washington Redskins; Tracy Sanders, a free-agent defensive back from Florida State; and Major Harris, the former West Virginia quarterback. Harris, who also left school early, was a 12th-round pick of the Eos Angeles Raiders in 1990. After holding out for far more than the Raiders were willing to pay a 12th-rounder, Harris signed with the British Columbia Lions of the Canadian Football League. Riding the bench behind Doug Flutie, Harris has seen scant playing time, and he is now holding out and clamoring for a trade.
Should Morcom get bogged down in negotiations with the team that selects Ismail, the rest of Team Rocket will, presumably, come to the rescue. "I hope Ed won't hesitate to call us up and bounce some ideas off us about the contract," says ProServ's Falk. "Or we might give Jon a call at Brobeck, to see if he had any ideas. The challenge will be for everyone to sublimate his own ego, and get along."
Ismail's decision to skip the recent NFL combines, at which players were tested, timed and measured en masse, may not have damaged his stock, but it probably didn't raise it, either. "I don't see any reason for Mr. Ish-male to go to the combine," says Abram. "What's he going to become, [draft pick] Number 1-A?"
Ismail, wise beyond his years, makes the combines decision sound much more reasonable, much less arrogant. "It's just that I've been concentrating real hard on track lately, plus I've got a ton of classes," he says. Representatives from nearly all the NFL teams will show up at a "private" workout at Notre Dame this week.
Though on the brink of becoming a multimillionaire, Ismail is doing his best to lead the life of an ordinary Notre Dame student. It hasn't been easy. While delivering a recent lecture at Notre Dame's Stepan Center, movie director Spike Lee learned that his audience, some 2,000 strong, did not include Ismail. Lee voiced his disappointment. So a friend of Ismail's sprinted to a phone and called Rocket, who had intended to be at the lecture but had forgotten. Ismail dashed over to Stepan, where, to his mortification, Lee invited him up on stage to the roar of the crowd. There, filmmaker and human highlight film exchanged pleasantries and baseball caps. Then Lee—Mars Blackmon himself—said, loud enough for all of Ismail's fellow students to hear, "You know, Rocket, I'd leave Michael for you."
Take a number, Mars.