Not that anybody in the NFL noticed, of course, but Raghib (Rocket) Ismail sure did have a good time at his pro football coming-out party last Thursday in Toronto. The evening was so sultry that the Skydome roof was peeled back to allow the energized crowd of 41,875, which sounded as if it had warmed up in the arena's Hard Rock Cafe, to see the stars. The ones in the sky, not the ones hanging around on the field. The celebrity lineup included John Candy, Jim Belushi, Mariel Hemingway, Wayne Gretzky, Brett Hull and Super Dave Osborne. Oh, yeah, and the Elwood Blues Revue, featuring Dan Aykroyd on vocals and harmonica, performed at halftime and after the game.
All this glitz, hitherto unheard-of in the Canadian Football League, guaranteed that everybody would walk away reasonably happy, even if Rocket fizzled. After all, he was coming off a leg injury and was making his first appearance in uniform since bypassing his senior year at Notre Dame—not to mention the NFL draft-to sign a four-year contract with the Toronto Argonauts that guaranteed he would earn at least $18 million. But Ismail flashed enough glimpses of his well-documented explosiveness on Thursday to make even skeptics begin to think that the Argos' new owners—main man Bruce McNall and his cronies, actor-comedian Candy and hockey icon Gretzky—just might know what they're doing.
Sure, Rocket handled the ball only seven times, partly because he hadn't fully recovered from a strained quadriceps in his left leg, and partly because he was still learning the Toronto offense and adapting to the Canadian game, with its three-down series, 110- by 65-yard field and so on. In addition, he admitted after the game to having had such a bad case of the jitters that "I never could get my legs to stop shaking." Still, Rocket piled up 213 all-purpose yards, including 73 on a tricky punt return that was the most exciting play in the Argos' 41-18 victory over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
"Some show, huh?" said McNall in the Toronto locker room. "And that's only the beginning."
When McNall, Candy and Gretzky bought the Argos in February for $5 million, they not only picked up the CFL's most venerated franchise, they also got a scoring machine that last season averaged 38 points a game and fell four points short of earning a spot in the Grey Cup. The problem was, Toronto attendance had dropped from a club-record average of 47,356 in 1976 to 31,676 last season.
To McNall, who made the bulk of his fortune dealing in rare coins, the first order of business was to do with the Argos what he did when he acquired Gretzky for his Los Angeles Kings hockey team—get somebody with enough star quality to fill the seats, interest the TV networks and generate excitement. The answer was Ismail, the 5'10", 175-pound dervish whose potential to score a touchdown every time he touched the ball made him one of the most exciting players in college history during his three seasons in South Bend.
From Ismail's standpoint, the money was important, but he also liked Toronto, which many U.S. blacks find more congenial than most major American cities, and he liked the idea of joining a team with an offense so potent that he wouldn't be expected to do too much too soon. Indeed, the Argos already possessed two of the league's premier big-play men in 5'5" back Mike (Pinball) Clemons, who last season amassed a CFL-record 3,300 all-purpose yards, and slotback Darrell K. Smith, whose 20 touchdown catches in 1990 set a league record.
However, soon after practice began in June, Ismail strained the quadriceps and then needed to have some wisdom teeth pulled. The rumor mill had it that he was malingering in practice and not paying attention in team meetings. Earlier this month, when he made a five-day trip to Los Angeles, ostensibly scheduled for business purposes but also to get a second opinion on his leg injury, some of his teammates questioned his dedication.
"A lot of baloney," Argo defensive back Carl Brazley said after the game. "There was no story when I missed four days because I got my wisdom teeth pulled. I felt sorry for him. He's been trying to fit in and do his thing and be one of the gang. But it's hard with all the hype."
His ailments caused Ismail to miss both of the Argos' exhibition games, plus their season opener on July 11 at Ottawa, where he at least sat on the bench and cheered his teammates to a 35-18 victory. Of course, nobody, least of all McNall and his partners, could feel too disappointed, because it meant that Ismail would make his debut at home, amid all the hoopla.
So confident was McNall of a good show that he waived the TV blackout clause that goes into effect when a game isn't a sellout. "We're in the entertainment business, and I wanted as many people as possible to be exposed to what we're doing," McNall said.
Although Ismail spent most of the game serving as a decoy, his presence meant that demons, Smith and the other Argo weapons had an easier time finding holes and gaps for big gainers. Three passes were thrown Ismail's way. He made a nice leaping catch of one of them for 38 yards, and the other two were knocked away at the last moment by aggressive defenders. He returned four kickoffs for 88 yards and ran back a punt for 14. Every time he touched the ball, the noise level in the Skydome rose a notch.
But his finest moment came as a result of Argo coach Adam Rita's innovative decision to use Rocket as a punt blocker, of all things. On his first rush, Ismail was no factor. On his second, he came within a whisker of getting a block. And on his third, with Toronto holding a 17-0 lead in the second quarter, Ismail took a step toward the punter, then drifted back toward Clemons, who received the kick.
After taking two steps forward, demons handed off to Ismail on a reverse, and Rocket took off. Ignoring a tug at his face mask, he swerved up the middle, broke to the right and was off on a 73-yard gallop that ended when he was overtaken and knocked out of bounds at the two. "I'm disappointed that I didn't get to pay dirt," he said later. "That's a long field, man. I was out there thinking like, 'Whew.' But even then it was like my legs were not there. I just wasn't myself."
Not to worry. The jitters will disappear, but the jitterbugging should only get better. Ismail's potential is so vast that already some fans are worried that he won't stay in, Toronto for the duration of his contract and will instead join the Los Angeles Raiders, who own his NFL rights, after two seasons. Indeed, the Washington Post reported last week that he was already contemplating doing exactly that.
For now, however, Rocket will do his launching for the Argos, and the owners won't have to import their Hollywood pals for future dates. Rocket and his teammates can take it from here.