You can talk around the subject of Qadry Ismail's famous sibling for only so long. You can discuss why Qadry drip-dries his T-shirts, why he presses his jeans so sharply he could shave with them, why all of his friends seem to be girls, but during the first lull it comes blurting out, unbidden and inevitable. "So," you say, "how's your brother?"
The smoke trail left by the older, faster Ismail, Raghib, a.k.a. the Rocket, still lingers. As the 1990 Heisman Trophy runner-up while a wide receiver-kick returner-running back for Notre Dame, the Rocket was perhaps the most exciting college football player of the last decade. That was an impossible act to follow for Qadry, 11 months younger and a shade slower-Raghib runs the 40-yard dash in 4.18 seconds; Qadry in 4.30. "I'm stymied," says Qadry, a senior at Syracuse this season. However, there is a considerable and growing body of evidence to suggest that Qadry is very much his own Ismail, from his slightly larger build to his slightly larger-than-life charm to his own explosive nickname, the Missile.
Before he became the Missile, when he was a high school senior, Ismail was known as GQ, for Gentleman Qadry, the uncomplaining fellow who played fullback and blocked so selflessly for his older brother at Meyers High School in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Raghib was always the star of the gridiron, Qadry the star of the school cafeteria and hallways. Now, Qadry is known as the bigger and perhaps better pro prospect of the two. With a career average of 20.4 yards per catch, he has even been mentioned as a Heisman candidate. In addition he is a talented trackman who owns or shares five Syracuse school records in the hurdles, sprints and relays. He is the first two-sport All-America for the Orangemen since Jim Brown played football and lacrosse in 1956-57. Because of these achievements, lately his relationship to his famous brother has become largely irrelevant.
But the Ismail family is indivisible. Among the brothers, who are, in descending order, Raghib, Qadry and 19-year-old Sulaiman, there is a saying: You've got your social friends, and then you've got your five-fingered friends. Your five-lingered friends are your only true friends, and they can be counted on the fingers on one hand. There are three Ismail brothers. That doesn't leave much room for outsiders.
October 18, 1992
Take the house that Raghib built in Mountain Top, Pa., after he signed his four-year, $18.2 million contract with the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League in 1991. There are no guest rooms. There is a room for Fatma, his mother, who calls herself the Launching Pad, and for Sulaiman, a student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. There is also a room for Qadry, but he has his own plans for when he leaves Syracuse later this year. "I'm going to sign a fat contract and build my own place," he says. "Right next door."
Raghib and Ismail appreciate that their dual success is a remarkable thing to outsiders. "I understand the fascination," Qadry says. Even as small boys playing sandlot ball in Newark, they were regarded with some awe by their peers. The other kids called them the Campbell brothers, after Earl Campbell, the Texas running back who was then viewed in their neighborhood as the superman of football. Which is not to say they're twins. Raghib grew into a small miracle of 5'10" and 190 pounds; Qadry became a pliable 6'0" and 192 pounds. They are as different in personality as they are in build. Qadry is more substantial, less skittish. At Notre Dame, Raghib once jumped into a laundry hamper to avoid the media. By contrast Qadry is a glad-hander. "If he doesn't get along with you, or you don't get along with him, there's something wrong," Raghib says. "You've got to be a total butthead."
Qadry is good company, the sort of guy who can't tell a story without leaping from his chair to act it out. According to his roommate, kicker Pat O'Neill, he has two moods: good cheer and medium cheer. "Down for him is a good mood to everyone else," O'Neill says. "I've never seen him negative. Maybe when he's sleeping." He has the kind of animation that makes kids and dogs follow him instinctively. "Kids, dogs, adults," Syracuse coach Paul Pasqualoni says. "Your aunts and uncles want his autograph."
Girls, too. They follow him. They call him. But not in the romantic way. They want him as a friend. As a child, Qadry would spend half of his time playing sandlot ball with Raghib and the other half with girls, being sociable. He knows how to play jacks and skip rope double-dutch style. In the cafeteria at Syracuse he will forsake a table full of teammates for a table full of girls, where he will chat away 30 minutes. He insists that it is not flirting, "I'm no Don Juan or gigolo," he says. "It's like he doesn't want any of them to feel left out," says Orange quarterback Marvin Graves. For the last 18 months he has been attached to Holly Oslander, a 6'3", blonde, blue-eyed basketball player.
Ismail's sociability can evaporate quickly, however, when he decides to focus on something. He has a perfectionist streak that makes even his laundry a matter of total concentration. He refuses to put his T-shirts in the dryer. Instead, he carefully drapes them over hangers and pulls them into perfect shape. He would rather have a dozen T-shirts hanging from the stair banister in the off-campus apartment he shares with O'Neill than wear one that has been scrunched up in the dryer. "I'm meticulous," he says.
At one point last spring Ismail treated his grade point average like his laundry. He is a decent student in speech communications, not a great one. But suddenly he decided he was tired of 2.8's and 2.9's, his averages since high school. He became obsessed with earning a 3.0. "Just once, to prove I could do it," he says. The result at the end of the term: 3.133.
Qadry's doggedness comes from Fatma. The Ismails' father, Ibrahim, like their mother a convert to Islam, died when Qadry was nine. Fatma held two jobs to support her sons as well as a daughter from a previous marriage. She sold cosmetics at Bambergers, handbags at Saks Fifth Avenue. She worked as a hairstylist and as a bartender. At night Fatma would lie on the floor of the Ismails' town house in Newark's Georgia King housing complex, exhausted. Her sons would take turns walking on her back to ease the soreness. "We've been happy with nothing," Fatma says.
As the Ismail boys grew older, Newark grew more menacing. A public phone in front of their town-house building became a headquarters for the local drug trade. Fatma tried to blow it up with firecrackers but only put it out of commission temporarily. When she found herself sleeping with a baseball bat, she began looking for a new home. In 1982 the Ismails moved to the Wilkes-Barre home of the boys' paternal grandmother, Laura Bauknight. "It was a timely exit," Fatma says. "Things were getting rough. It was more than a single mother could handle."
The first football star in Wilkes-Barre was not Raghib but Qadry. Raghib was a small, underweight back on the freshman team at Meyers High. "His pads were too big, and he always fumbled," Qadry says. Meanwhile Qadry was tearing up the local Pop Warner league for his team, the Mini Mohawks, gaining 200 yards a game out of the backfield. But when Qadry finally suited up with the freshmen, his stardom abruptly ended. He was put at fullback because he was the only kid around who was fast enough to block for Raghib. The Rocket was born literally on the heels of his brother. While Raghib carried the ball 15 to 20 times a game, Qadry was lucky to get it at all. "I was so mad," Qadry says now. "It wasn't at Raghib. I just wanted the ball. As an athlete, I wanted to play." In one game Qadry staged a personal silent protest. He lined up for plays sloppily. He would take a lazy three-point stance, with his fingers barely brushing the ground. "I'd give a block just because I didn't want him to get hurt," Qadry says.
Three years later the varsity coach told the disheartened Qadry, "Your time will come." It never did, not in high school. Qadry and Raghib were classmates because Raghib had repeated a year of grade school. So they graduated together. Notre Dame heavily recruited Raghib and also offered Qadry a scholarship—to run track. "Raghib was always selected first, in everything," Fatma says. "Qadry always had to work as hard...or harder. He has been the perfect gentleman, who has always had to prove himself."
While the Rocket was startling the nation as a college freshman in 1988, Qadry was being redshirted by Syracuse. In his first game as a starter, against USC in the 1990 Kickoff Classic, Qadry dropped two key passes, one a sure touchdown. He was later found to be suffering from a fractured finger. But the performance earned the enduring skepticism of then coach Dick MacPherson, even though MacPherson had once predicted Qadry would be a star. His talent was just too raw, and his confidence too fragile. He did not catch a pass at all that season.
But after MacPherson resigned to become coach of the New England Patriots, Pasqualoni, formerly the linebackers coach, offered Qadry a fresh start. Also, receivers coach Dennis Goldman gave him a piece of advice: Put your nose to the ball. Goldman even painted the tips of the practice balls white. Qadry kept a picture of himself on his shelf, hugging a ball to his face mask, eyes trained on it. "He didn't catch the ball here for the first couple of years," Pasqualoni says. "People would say, 'Is he nervous? Is he uptight? Is he trying to live up to his brother?' I think he just had his own expectations. He tried so hard, and things didn't work out. Then he settled down. He realized that if you just catch the ball, when it's all done you'll get your share of the glory."
Last season he became a triple threat, the Orangemen's leading receiver and kickoff returner, as well as their third-leading rusher. He showed an animal hunger for the end zone, averaging 54 yards per play on his seven touchdowns. On Syracuse's very first play from scrimmage this season, he went 64 yards for a score on an option against East Carolina. Against Texas two weeks ago he broke open a close game with a diving catch that gave the Orange a 58-yard gain and set up the clinching touchdown in a 31-21 victory. Qadry maintains that he didn't feel pressed by Raghib's success, he just needed to mature at his own rate. "There was no identity carving," he says.
Qadry takes a quiet but deep satisfaction in being the player to watch during games, especially when his propensity for the big play causes other teams to alter their defensive scheme. He has a tackle-breaking ability his more-elusive brother lacks. "He gives you a wide receiver who can block or who can accelerate and run by everyone or who can run through defenders," Pasqualoni says. "The pros are going to love him."
Opponents have been reluctant to kick the ball in his vicinity. Still, in a 50-28 defeat of Rutgers last Saturday, which ran Syracuse's record to 4-1, he became the eighth player in NCAA history to gain 2,000 career yards on kickoff returns. And even when other teams play keep away, Ismail has aided the Orangemen with his mere presence. The opposition resorts to squib kicks, sky kicks and kicks out of bounds to avoid letting him touch the ball, with the result that Syracuse routinely starts drives at its 40. The Orangemen have also been able to throw opponents into a state of confusion by using Ismail in the backfield or on reverses from his receiver position. Sometimes he can hear the alarms go up from the opposing coaches when he takes the line of scrimmage: "Get a jam, get a jam!" "It's a reverse!" "No, no, watch the pass!" Everybody is yelling all at once, the linebackers and defensive backs are checking off and scrambling around. Sometimes he can barely resist the urge to stand up and yell back at them: "Relax, man. It's a run up the middle."
All this attention is Qadry's recompense for his years in the shadows. The only thing better would be a chance to play with Raghib again. That possibility is remote, however. The Rocket was drafted by the Los Angeles Raiders in 1991, but he has two years remaining on his Argonaut contract. Still, he and Qadry shared a field not long ago—at the Hall of Fame Bowl at the end of last season. Syracuse defeated Ohio State 24-17 as Qadry caught a short pass and turned it into a 57-yard gain. Raghib, a sideline spectator, led the delirious cheers.
"Ever since we were younger, he's had to work harder," Raghib says. "I never had to do anything extra. Any time Qadry does something, I know it's well deserved, because it's come hard."