Lift Off

Rocket Ismail is about to quit Canada to launch a career in the NFL
April 25, 1993

Raghib (Rocket) Ismail, the most famous draft dodger this side of elective office, is about to come home and make his peace with pro football's selective service. For two years now it has been a life on the run for Ismail, the former Notre Dame star who eluded the New England Patriots, owners of the first draft choice in 1991, by fleeing across the border to the Canadian Football League. Apparently it has been an unpleasant exile, because Ismail is coming home to the U.S. in spite of a contract that will pay him $4.5 million in each of the next two years if he stays north of the border.

Ismail's repatriation will be complicated, costly for someone, and it might not be completed for weeks. But his days as a Toronto Argonaut are almost certainly over. He will probably join the Los Angeles Raiders, who drafted him in the fourth round in 1991, even after he had signed with Toronto. Look for the Rocket to be back in the States this fall, back in the NFL, back where the games don't start until they play the song about his red glare.

The only interesting question is, At whose bidding will he be coming back? At first glance it might seem that this is all Ismail's idea. He has been pining to return to the U.S. and take his rightful place in the NFL, to strut his talents in the only big league showcase there is. The CFL is great—those wide fields are fun for a man of Ismail's particular talents—but its players are largely anonymous in the States. Another year in the Great North and Rocket would be remembered in the U.S. as Qadry's older brother, not as the most exciting Notre Dame player since Paul Hornung.

But the answer is not that simple. It has been suggested that Ismail's exile has actually been more unpleasant for Canada than it has been for him and that his return to the NFL—which everyone expected would happen eventually, when his Toronto contract expired—is, in fact, a deportation. Put another way, Canada may have fired him.

Ismail, who is back at Notre Dame this semester working toward his degree in American studies, grudgingly admits to the latter scenario. After some initial misgivings that were reasonable enough for anyone who grew up in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., dreaming of playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Ismail came to like both Toronto and the CFL. In fact, he says, he was just beginning to hit his stride. "I was getting ready to branch out into the community," he says. "Get my programs going." But he adds quickly, "The chances of me going back are not good."

The thinking in Toronto is that the Argonauts' principal owner, Bruce McNall, is going to cut his losses and will launch the Rocket across the border whether the kid wants to go or not. The belief is that McNall has been so dissatisfied with his little trophy that he not only wants to stop payment on Ismail's fabulous salary but may demand a refund as well.

This sounds preposterous, considering that, in football terms, Ismail delivered and then some. His first season in Toronto he caught 64 passes for 1,300 yards and nine touchdowns, and in fashion so dramatic that McNall could not even have fantasized it, he helped the Argonauts clinch the Grey Cup with an 87-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Moreover, in a city where the Argos are the third team, behind the Maple Leafs and the Blue Jays, he helped boost attendance from 30,500 a game to 37,120.

At $4.5 million a year, he was almost a bargain. "In the beginning," says Hugh Campbell, general manager of the rival Edmonton Eskimos, "he was an excellent signing. He got the attention Toronto needed. I'm not sure he returned the investment dollar for dollar that first year, but nobody in the league was laughing at McNall."

Last year there was some snickering. Ismail's numbers went way down (he caught only 36 passes for 651 yards) as the team went from first to worst in its four-team division, and attendance sagged to 34,000 per game. None of this was Ismail's fault exactly. After the Argonauts' starting quarterback, Matt Dunigan, left in a contract dispute, the team didn't have a passer who could deliver the ball to him, or anyone else. But amid all this failure, the novelty of a high-priced kick returner and occasional receiver was wearing pretty thin. It occurred to the fans that Ismail was becoming invisible on the team—just a guy who happened to be more of a bank breaker than a game breaker. For goodness' sake, the Argonauts' most popular player was a bargain-basement guy with a nickname every bit as good as the Rocket's. Rest assured that running back Pinball Clemons, who smiled a lot more than Ismail, was not making $4.5 million a year.

Of course Ismail was not there just to play football. You could figure that out from his contract, which specified only $110,000 per annum from the Argonauts for the odd catch or kick return. The rest of his considerable contract was fashioned as a personal-services deal with McNall. Ismail was being paid as an ambassador, the Wayne Gretzky of Canadian football.

This turned out to be a monumental misunderstanding. At his introductory press conference back in April 1991, Ismail told the crowd that money and fame weren't everything. He badly missed the point; as far as legitimizing the CFL, his money and fame were everything. McNall was hoping that having made magic in Los Angeles by bringing media-friendly Gretzky from Canada to his Los Angeles Kings, he could simply reverse the move by sending a Notre Dame icon to Canada. Alas, McNall seems to have finally realized that Ismail is, temperamentally at least, no Gretzky. Says McNall, "He may not have understood his function. We really wanted him, for the bulk of the money, to promote the CFL in general and the Argos in particular. I still think he has charisma, and there's no doubt about his football abilities. But it's fair enough to say there have been disappointments off the field."

Ismail's charisma did not translate into Canadian. On a day-to-day basis he seems to have gotten on with the Toronto media. But he was maddeningly casual about his promotional duties. He stood up some writers and TV reporters, and he was generally unpredictable. Jim Proudfoot, a columnist for the Toronto Star, says, "He's a nice kid, but a child, you see. He had no concept of responsibility, as a member of the team or as a human being."

The Canadian media were increasingly frustrated by Rocket's unavailability, so they naturally ceased playing their role in the marketing of a superhero. After enough blown appointments, nobody was willing to cut Ismail slack. Incidents began to be cataloged: the time two years ago when Ismail ducked out in the midst of a charity function, claiming to be sick, only to be subsequently spotted at a rock concert; the time he was set up for an interview with TSN, Canada's all-sports network, and never showed, etc., etc.

In person Ismail is 100% fun to be around. Unfortunately for McNall and the Toronto media (and there are plenty Stateside who have been left hanging too), Ismail does not believe in making himself very available. This is interpreted as aloofness, arrogance and all other unfavorable qualities normally assigned to a 23-year-old millionaire. But there may be other explanations.

Sister Kathleen Gilbert, who is officially Ismail's academic adviser and unofficially much more, remembers a game that Ismail invited her to attend in Toronto. "I'm waiting for him after the game, and all the players are filing through this fenced area where the fans are getting autographs," she recalls. "The Rocket is hiding somewhere else in the stadium. I wanted to grab him and shake him. But do you know what he says? He says, 'If I'm there, my teammates will get no attention.' " Sister Kathleen has sat him down and tried to explain his unique situation. "But he just doesn't get it," she says.

One Toronto sportswriter, no friend of Ismail's, says, "It is true the players love him, mostly because he shares the spotlight." That's tragically ironic. At his rates Ismail is supposed to occupy the spotlight full-time. But he won't. Instead he has spent two uncomfortable years trying to fit in with players making so little money that, for many, the CFL is a side job. "I mean, here I am, endorsed by Ford, getting a new Explorer every five minutes," he says, "and there's a teammate chugging out of the parking lot in a 1972 Toyota—chug, chug, catch you later, Rocket."

As for his promotional duties, he believes he has discharged them all. "I may have been late for some of them," he says, "but I think I attended them." (Hearing this, Sister Kathleen rolls her eyes.) Obviously there were misunderstandings on both sides. "Maybe what [McNall] thought he was getting was a Gretzky," Ismail says. "Well, there's a difference between a legend and a legend in his own mind." The Rocket laughs at that one.

McNall and his aides say that they approached Ismail several times about his shortcomings as a personality. And they have let it be known that they remain unsatisfied. In fact, the comments of McNall and other executives from his company, Sports and Entertainment, have the suspicious whiff of file-building. They have gone on record with their disappointments at each Ismail gaffe, as if documentation might come in handy someday.

After Ismail was quoted last fall as saying, "It isn't over until the extremely fat lady sings or the extremely fat man cuts you," Susan Waks, the Argos' chief financial officer, jumped to the offensive. She said, "I don't know if Bruce took it personally, but I did." Ismail's personal publicist, Gus Heningburg, put a terribly lame spin on the incident. Said Heningburg, "Among his peers the term fat refers to rich." Rocket Ismail, hepcat. In any case, McNall made no secret of the fact that he had suggested to Ismail that he begin to explore his options in the NFL.

Ismail's greatest sin of all is not his poor behavior, not his infamous stomping of a Calgary Stampeder in a game last season, nor even his reluctance to promote the game in Canada. His greatest sin is his contract. For a player who only touches the ball occasionally on the field and who won't open his mouth off it, $4.5 million is a lot of money. Especially for a team that missed breaking even by, oh, about $3.5 million.

McNall swears that the money is beside the point. Reports that the recession has crimped his collectibles business—rare coins, a Honus Wagner baseball card here and there—"annoy" him. Rocket Ismail, he insists, is not being sent home as part of some fire sale. "I read about my cash flow," he says, chuckling. "Well, I'm not in the cash-flow business. I'm more concerned with improving asset value than cash flow. From the time I made the investment in the Kings, in Wayne, to now, my cash flow has never changed. But my investment value has gone from $16 million to $100 million or more. I'd like to do the same thing in Toronto, but first I need to promote the CFL."

Still, with two years remaining on Ismail's contract, there is a sense that McNall means to play economic hardball with his property. Ismail has not had an agent since Team Rocket—the ad hoc group that had negotiated the Argo deal—was disbanded during Ismail's first season in Canada, and the Ismail family was sufficiently shocked by McNall's suggestion that Rocket look around that they hired superagent Bob Woolf to negotiate for them.

Woolf is embarking on a ticklish piece of deal-making. The Argonauts could very well take the position that as a league and team spokesman, Ismail has fallen short of fulfilling his end of the deal and thereby forfeits the remainder of his contract. They may, for the sake of negotiations, take the extreme position that he has been in a nonperformance mode all along and must return some or all of the money that he has been paid. McNall has put noted entertainment lawyer Bert Fields at the head of his table, which suggests that he means business. For his part, Ismail may state publicly that he intends to return to play football for Toronto and demand that the contract be fulfilled. But it doesn't sound as if anybody wants that to happen.

The wild card, as usual, is Al Davis. The Raiders' owner loves to grab players other teams won't take chances on—for example, Bo Jackson, who was considered a useless pick because he intended to play baseball, and Navy tailback Napoleon McCallum, who was neglected in the pro draft because of his military obligation. Similarly, Davis grabbed the rights to Ismail when it was clear he was headed for Toronto. Like the Mounties, Davis always gets his man.

Davis loves speedy receivers, but even if he is feeling generous, it is unlikely that he will pay Ismail anywhere near the same first-pick money that Steve Emtman received from the Indianapolis Colts last year. Davis knows that after two years of playing out of the limelight, Ismail is not loaded with bargaining power. And if Rocket decides to sit out for a year in order to test the waters in '94, he will not only risk fading further into obscurity but will have to contend with the NFL's new leaguewide salary cap as well.

Then again, Ismail may be happy with any kind of money, as long as all he has to do is play football for it. "Marinovich, Townsend, Allen, Dickerson, Gault...." Ismail reels off Raider name after Raider name. "That's going to be so cool. I won't even be noticed, be just one of the guys."

It seems clear by now that he's out of the personal-services business for good. Somebody just kick him the ball.

PHOTODAVE BUSTON/CANAPRESSDavis (right) hopes that Ismail (25) can be as big a star in L.A. as he was his rookie year in Toronto. PHOTORICHARD MACKSON[See caption above.] PHOTOCRAIG ROBERTSON/CANADA WIDEIn happier days McNall (top) and his Argo partner, actor John Candy, thought Ismail the equal of Gretzky as an investment.

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