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Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024
The Observer

Former football player reflects on discerning career

Notre Dame Law School’s “Journal of International and Comparative Law” hosted a symposium titled “From Courts of Sport to Courts of Justice” on Friday to discuss legal issues relating to sports. The event was capped off with a discussion — moderated by law student Matthew Clark — with former Notre Dame kick returner and wide receiver, Raghib ‘Rocket’ Ismail, who discussed his football career, brand and certain legal issues plaguing the football industry.

Ismail started off the event by discussing the origins of his nickname, which was given to him by his track coach when he was a junior high student in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

“I came out the block and his reaction was … ‘That’s it — that kid came out of the blocks like a rocket,’” he said. “The next day in school, when I would pass some of the upperclassman in the halls ... ‘Oh look who it is, the Rocket.’”

Ismail said despite the nickname, he didn't recognize his potential to move onto the higher levels of the sport until late in his high school career.

“I didn’t realize how fast I was until my senior year, our coaches took us to this football camp at Syracuse University,” he said. “I remember when I ran my [40-yard dash], I came back and [the timers] were looking at their watches and looking at each other.”

Ismail said he eventually decided to come to play football at Notre Dame, where he won a national championship in 1988 and was named an All-American in 1990. He said this success led him to consider playing professionally — an ambition that was strengthened when his teammate’s mother died after the 1991 Orange Bowl.

“I remember my brother woke me up the next morning urgently,” he said. “He saw in the news that Chris Zorich — he got back to Chicago and found his mother at home, she had passed away. It was like a spirit of fear overcame me. ... A lot of the reason I was doing what I was doing was because somehow this [was] going to provide for my family since my father was gone, and my mother and grandmother were struggling to make ends meet.”

Despite his potential to be a high-draft pick in the NFL, Ismail said he was swayed to play in the Canadian Football League by Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall, who hoped to use Ismail as a way to establish an expansion team in the NFL.

“Bruce McNall partnered with John Candy, who was a comedian — a real funny cat — and Wayne Gretzky, a legendary hockey guy, planning to buy a team in Toronto, a metropolis that was just busting at the seams with potential for market share,” he said. “They were going to buy the team, the Toronto Argonauts, and after they bought the team, they were going to take what the NFL did with expansion and throw their hat in the ring. They wanted me to sign with them. They gave me ownership in the team. My salary would be $4 million a year. They gave me equity.”

Ismail said this contract convinced him to sign with the Toronto Argonauts.

“Well, I guess if I’m going to provide for my family, this is how it’s going to happen, and I ended up signing for Toronto,” he said.

After discussing his football career, Ismail began discussing the game’s legal issues and said players should be paid under certain conditions.

“You can’t pay the athletes without educating them,” he said. “If you’re a part of this generation, you’re a consumer by default now. … There should be financial courses that you are required to take,” he said.

Ismail said the lawsuit against the NFL over concussions reminds him that athletes can face serious consequences for playing sports.

“In 2011 and 2012 ... there was some information that was exposed, and there was negligence,” he said. “I remember when it was brought to the forefront, getting calls from a couple of players who were like, ‘Hey man, this is going on, and this is what happened,’ and then information started coming out about the long-term effects of getting concussions and brain injuries. I remember going to meet with them and realizing this is pretty serious.”

Ismail said this information altered what activities he allowed his children to participate in while they were growing up, including his son Raghib Ismail Jr., who currently plays football for Texas Christian University.

“I didn’t let him play football until he reached puberty,” he said.

Ismail said despite his reservations, he didn’t want this controversy to dictate his son’s future.

“In life, you can’t make decisions based on fear,” he said. “Even though this is a potential hazard of what you want to do, you … have to be able to deal wisely with that hazard and proceed accordingly.”