Football players have always been the great teases of track and field. They tantalize us with their talent and then streak off to make real money, football money. Bob Hayes, at least, stuck around long enough to win the 1964 Olympic 100-meter dash in world-record time. How fast could Bo Jackson, Ron Brown or Herschel Walker run if sprinting were their top priority? It's enough to make a track fan impale himself on the nearest javelin.
Now comes Raghib Ismail, the Notre Dame flanker whose very nickname—Rocket—promises transcendent speed. When Ismail rose in the blocks for the start of the 55-meter dash final at the NCAA Indoor Championships in Indianapolis's Hoosier Dome last Saturday night, no one, not even Irish coach Joe Piane, knew quite what to expect. "Maybe he hasn't had enough training," Piane had said before the meet. "Rocket started in January. For Carl Lewis, track is his life. This is Raghib's hobby. He's pretty good at his hobby."
He certainly is. In just his second meet of the season (he ran indoors as a freshman in 1989 but sat out last year), the Central Collegiate Conference Championships on Feb. 9, Ismail clocked 6.07, the fastest in the world this year and just .07 off Lee McRae's five-year-old world best. Indeed, until Augustin Olobia of Washington State and Nigeria edged him in last Friday morning's prelims, 6.18 to 6.19, Ismail had won every one of the 23 races he'd run in college—heats, semis and finals. The only question was how Ismail would respond to a challenge. In Friday afternoon's semifinal, he turned the tables on Olobia, 6.13 to 6.14.
In Saturday's final, Ismail got out first, but by 30 meters he began to see Olobia edging ahead on his left. "He panicked and tried to accelerate," said John Millar, Notre Dame's sprint coach. Olobia clocked 6.17 and Ismail 6.19, the same time given to third-place finisher Frank Fredericks of BYU and Namibia.
Afterward, Rocket's beaming conqueror revealed that Ismail had inspired him to try out for the Washington State football team, for which he is now a backup wide receiver and wears Ismail's number, 25. How, Olobia was asked, does a Nigerian at Washington State come to know so much about an American football player? "About the Rocket?" asked Olobia. "You read. You hear. You see."
Whatever glory awaits him in the NFL, Ismail, 21, accounts himself a novice on the track, a humble apprentice. "It's nice to sec up close the people I've read about in Track & Field News," he said, citing half-miler Mark Everett in particular. Did he know Everett on sight? "Heck, yeah," said Ismail, sounding almost insulted.
"He is a track enthusiast," says Rocket's 20-year-old brother, Qadry. In 1988, at Meyers High in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Raghib won the 100 and the long jump and anchored Meyers's 400-meter relay at the state Class AA championships. He was named Pennsylvania schoolboy track and field athlete of the year.
Raghib's desire to sprint was rekindled by Millar's arrival in South Bend last summer. A native of Toronto, Millar had run the middle distances for Canada in the late 1970s. He attended football practice regularly, getting to know the players. He was rewarded when Ismail and 11 others showed up for track practice in January.
On Saturday afternoons in the fall, Millar had scrutinized Rocket in full flight every chance he got. "I noticed he had a tendency to overstride when he got tired," recalls Millar. "His foot was landing in front of his center of gravity, which has a braking effect."
So Millar assigned him drills. In one, Millar places hurdle slats, one after another, on the track, like railroad ties. He spaces them 1.9 meters apart—slightly less than the length of Ismail's full stride—and has his pupil sprint over them, concentrating on taking short, quick strides and snapping his feet down quickly so as not to touch a slat.
The drills have paid off. Rocket's first stage—his explosion from the blocks—is breathtaking. Some would say a little too breathtaking. His 6.07 came in the prelims of the Central Collegiate Conference Championships, and when he managed only 6.21 and 6.25 in the semis and final, it was widely assumed in track circles that he had caught a "flier"—that he had anticipated rather than responded to the gun. Videotapes of the race were circulated, and though the consensus seems to be that the time will stand, Ismail had something to prove.
Indoors, at least, they are now believers. However, as Millar well knows, the true test comes outdoors—over the standard 100-meter distance. "What happens between 60 and 100 is different," says Millar. "That's where fatigue comes in. I'm not sure how much he'll slow down."
Probably not as much as some other football players who have sprinted. At 5'10", 175 pounds, he is much less heavily muscled than most of his predecessors. Ismail's best 100-meter time remains the 10.57 he ran the summer before he entered Notre Dame. When he was told that Millar had named 10.10, just .18 off the world record, as a reasonable target for him, Ismail's eyes widened.
Of course, everything may change when Ismail signs with whichever NFL team drafts him on April 21. For now, though, he is planning to run in the NCAA Outdoor Championships, which begin on May 29.
The Athletics Congress has quietly petitioned the International Amateur Athletic Federation to allow athletes who are professionals in other sports to compete in track and field. The IAAF will vote on that request in late August, at the World Championships in Tokyo. So Ismail's career may not have to end this spring, which would be great news not just for Rocket but also for the whole sport.