Finally! Raghib “Rocket” Ismail Elected Into College Football Hall Of Fame
Former 1988-90, Notre Dame receiver/running back/return man Raghib “Rocket” Ismail was one of 13 players and two coaches selected to the 2019 College Football Hall of Fame Class, announced Monday morning.
Ismail becomes the 47th Fighting Irish player to enter the College Football Hall of Fame, the most of any program. He will reportedly participate in tonight’s coin toss at the College Football Playoff championship game between Alabama and Clemson.
All the honorees will be inducted into the Hall Dec. 10 in New York.
After following every detail of Notre Dame football the past 48 years, I sometimes am asked, “Who’s the greatest Notre Dame player you’ve ever seen?”
The answer always had been defensive end Ross Browner (1973, 1975-77).
It still was, until about 1990, when I amended my reply to: “Without the ball in his hands, Ross Browner. When the ball is in his hands, Rocket Ismail is the most breathtaking, electrifying athlete I ever saw don a Notre Dame uniform.” Compilation of YouTube highlights here.
Wayne Dwyer, Ismail’s assistant football coach at Meyers High School in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and longtime family friend, remembers first meeting the 13-year-old Ismail in 1983.
“My son, who was the same age as him, kept talking about this amazing, neat little kid who had moved from Newark, N.J.,” Dwyer said in a 1989 interview with Blue & Gold Illustrated. “One day he brought him home, and he was the nicest little gentleman a person could meet. My son then said, ‘Show him what you can do!’
“Rock hesitated at first and then did a backward somersault flip in the air. He landed on his feet at about the same point he began his flip, and he looked up back at me like he hadn’t done anything.”
It was in the Dwyer home where Ismail first heard Notre Dame’s “Victory March.” Dwyer became an Irish fan through his association with Mickey Gorham, the head football coach at Meyers and a 1958 Notre Dame graduate. Then one day, Ismail sat with Dwyer to view “Wake Up The Echoes” the videotape that chronicled Notre Dame’s football history.
“From his junior year on, before every big game, he’d come over to view the tape alone,” Dwyer said. “My son and I would be over at the stadium getting ready for the game, and ‘Rock’ would just be by himself and watch the tape.”
By then, Ismail had already decided his goal was to play for Notre Dame. On his official recruiting trip to Notre Dame, Ismail was entranced when he saw the Golden Dome for the first time while still on the plane.
“I think it was a case where I saw ‘Wake Up The Echoes’ so many times, I almost thought of it as some magic place that can’t be real,” Ismail said.
Unfortunately, while third-year Fighting Irish head coach Lou Holtz was enthralled with Ismail’s speed, he had some misgivings when he first spotted the 5-10, 166-pound dynamo in person.
“You know how when you meet someone and you can tell [he’s] excited to meet you?” Ismail asked in the book What It Means To Be Fighting Irish, released in 2004. “Well, you also know when they’re not excited to meet you, or they’re disappointed. I could see in Coach Holtz’s face, even though he was smiling, that he was disappointed because I was so small. I felt like, ‘Oh, man, I just lost my chance to go to Notre Dame!’ I was so afraid. I should have worn some lifts in my shoes.
“But my speed was such a factor that even though I was small, they had to take a chance on me.”
It was a calculated gamble that resulted in Holtz — and Notre Dame — winning the college football lottery. Once the Rocket enrolled, the ignition for Notre Dame’s lift-off into the elite stratosphere was no coincidence. Consider the “Five Rs” during his three seasons at Notre Dame before turning pro.
Notre Dame won the first 23 games in Ismail’s career, a school standard.
The Irish were 33-4 (.892) in Ismail’s three seasons, but consider this about the 9-3 campaign in 1990 when he finished second in the Heisman Trophy balloting to Brigham Young’s Ty Detmer (Ismail did win the Walter Camp Award): In that year’s loss to Stanford, Ismail did not play because of an injury. In the second defeat, versus Penn State, Notre Dame held a 21-7 halftime lead when Ismail played. When he was sidelined with an injury in the second half, the Irish lost, 24-21.
In the third loss, to No. 1 Colorado in the Orange Bowl, Ismail returned a punt 91 yards in the final minute, but the potential game-winner was negated by a clipping call, one of the more debated calls in the program’s history.
Ismail’s six returns for touchdowns tie Tim Brown and Allen Rossum for the most at Notre Dame — and that’s without a senior season after he opted to turn pro.
The two kickoff returns for scores (88 and 92 yards) at Michigan in 1989 during the No. 1 versus No. 2 showdown marked the first time anyone returned a kickoff against the Wolverines in 32 years. Just as defining was his 94-yard romp off a kickoff in the 29-20 victory over hated Miami in 1990. (Ismail also rushed for 100 yards on 13 carries in that contest.)
Although he enrolled as a running back and had no experience as a wideout, Ismail’s 71 career receptions at Notre Dame averaged a school-record 22.0 yards that still stands. In the memorable 31-30 victory over No. 1 Miami in 1988, the freshman caught four passes for 97 yards, setting up two touchdowns with crucial grabs.
When Notre Dame’s 23-game winning streak was snapped at Miami in 1989, Holtz apologized to Ismail for not getting him more involved in the game (he had four carries for 29 yards after rushing for 84 yards on nine carries the previous week at Penn State).
Holtz then inserted Ismail at tailback in the 1990 Orange Bowl against No. 1 Colorado, and the Rocket Man was named the MVP after logging 16 carries for 108 yards, highlighted by a 35-yard touchdown, in the 21-6 Irish victory.
Not including that Orange Bowl, Ismail’s 131 career carries averaged 7.7 yards. The school record is 7.6 by Reggie Brooks because 150 attempts are required to be recognized.
Ismail was the lone player in school history to exceed 1,000 rushing yards, 1,000 receiving yards and 1,000 return yards — until Theo Riddick achieved it in 2012 in a four-year college career.
Of all of Ismail’s numbers, none is as mind boggling than the fact that his 17 career touchdowns at Notre Dame (bowl games excluded) averaged 61.7 yards.
What other player in NCAA annals who lined up on offense and scored a minimum of 10 career touchdowns can rival that figure? Even 1987 Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown’s 22 career touchdowns averaged “only” 41.5 yards.