Raghib “The Rocket” Ismail did not need the College Football Hall of Fame to induct him into the hall to be a Hall of Famer. Heck, most people who learned he had been inducted assumed he was already in. It did occur to me however, that the older I get, the more people who are becoming fans who don’t really know what The Rocket was about.
First, there is the name. From about the middle of his freshman season to pretty much present day, he’s referred to as The Rocket or just Rocket. He rarely is referred to as Raghib, mostly because of the nickname, but also because no one really knows how to pronounce his first name (the “g” is hard, as in Gipper, and it rhymes with glib).
Is there a cooler nickname in sports than The Rocket? Maybe Prime Time for Deion Sanders. That’s pretty good. But, to just be called Rocket? Every time he got the ball “Here comes The Rocket!” the announcer called out. Like he was a super hero flying in to terrify defenses and thrill the crowd. And there were tales of lore about his speed. He ran a 4.28 forty. No, it was a 4.21. No, maybe it was a 4.18 he ran in practice. There was no limit, or number that could be thrown out that wouldn’t be believed. He was the Rocket, he was as fast as he needed to be. And he was magical.
Which is the second thing. Rocket was an event. There was a certain thrill to him, to seeing him out there, to see him carry the ball, catch the ball, return a kick. Is he going to do an amazing thing today? He brought an energy unlike anything Notre Dame has seen since. You could call it generational in that sense. It definitely lured me in, a nine year old boy living in Southern California with zero Notre Dame ties. You could feel it through the screen. He was a show unto himself. Notre Dame has had exciting players in the decades since his time, Will Fuller and Golden Tate specifically. But, Rocket was the show, in a totally different way.
Lastly, he was a great, great football player. He was also a man before his time, who played in an era where a reverse or a middle screen were novel plays that defenses didn’t really know how to handle. Imagine him today with no huddle offenses, being matched up with a linebacker out of the backfield, or being the ball carrier on the zone read and teams run 70-80 plays instead of 50-60. It would have been a weekly evisceration.
Rocket did it all. He returned kickoffs, punts, played out wide, in the slot, tailback, he blocked punts. He was the Walter Camp Player of The Year in 1990, a unanimous first team All-American, and second to Ty Detmer in the Heisman balloting. He gained over 1,000 yards for his career on the ground (1,015, 7.7 ypc), as a receiver (1,565, 22 ypc), and as a returner (1,271, 27.6 ypr).
To finish off this tribute to my favorite Notre Dame player, here are my five favorite Rocket moments.
5.) 1990- 95 yard kickoff return against #2 Miami
With Notre Dame trailing 10-3 in the first quarter, Miami kicks the ball to the Rocket who takes it straight up the middle, makes one cut to the left and that was the end of it for the Hurricanes. What gets me about this is the woman in the glasses losing her mind after the play. She’s leaping and flapping her arms with a childlike giddiness akin to when a toddler sees the trash truck coming down the street. This gets at what I was talking about earlier, about Rocket being the show. She got to see Rocket return a kickoff for a touchdown in Notre Dame Stadium. Like seeing Messi score a goal or Steph Curry go off with a rain of threes. Anyway, the #6 Irish ended up winning this game 29-20 and onto a #1 ranking.
4.) 1990 Orange Bowl- 35 Yard Reverse Against #1 Colorado
I love me a well executed reverse, although this one could have been blown up for a 5 yard loss if not for Rockets shiftiness right when he receives the ball. The patience here is what gets me. He takes his time, weaves through defenders, gets into the clear and turns it on, at which point everyone knows the play is over and he’ll stop once he’s reached the destination. (Pretty wild that on 3rd and 13 they run a reverse and it works for touchdown. Feel like that’d never be called/would never work on that down and distance in today’s game.) (Check out full back Anthony Johnson. He cuts the blitzing linebacker who is going to blow up the play, then gets up and cuts the safety who is going to blow up the play. Incredible football there.
3.) 1990- 76 Yard Run Against Pittsburgh
Quite simply, this is liftoff. I love this play because its just striking how quickly he accelerates and appears to be moving in fast forward while everyone else is on regular speed. He’s in the I-formation, gets the ball on a power, hops through the hole and then boom.
2.) 1989- 89 Yard Kickoff Return Against #2 Michigan
Let’s pause for a moment to take in how absurd it is that Michigan kicked it to the Rocket a second time in this game. Notre Dame could not move the ball on offense, they’d scored off of a turnover in the red zone, where Tony Rice completed his only pass of the game. (Notre Dame played the #2 team and completed one pass and attempted just two!) They couldn’t really run, and the other touchdown they’d scored was a kickoff return by Rocket. Yet, after Michigan cut the lead 17-12 in the fourth quarter, those buffoons thought it’d be a good idea to give The Rocket one more crack at it and well, history was made.
1.) 1991 Orange Bowl- 91 Yard Kickoff Return Against #1 Colorado
Look, it’s an abomination with what happened regarding the terrible clipping call. Everyone knows this. But, seriously, how does this return even happen? Notre Dame is down 10-9. They can’t move the ball. The only way they win is if Rocket returns it for a touchdown. This guy, 5-10 and 175 pounds, takes the kick heads right up the middle and is hit square by future NFL linebacker Chad Brown. This isn’t a glancing blow. He gets all of The Rocket, and Rocket just shrugs it off like its his elementary school brother. Doesn’t even lose his balance. Then he breaks another tackle and he’s off, it’s over. Like Bill Walsh says “he had one chance and he did it.” He did it. And whether the refs want to count it or not, he did it. And nine year old me was crying in my room because my guy had been cheated. But I’ll be darned if The Rocket didn’t do the thing that everyone knew he was going to do.