Candidates for the College Football Hall of Fame class of 2018 were announced earlier this week. Three former Notre Dame greats are among the list of 75 former players and 6 coaches vying for the 10 spots in this year’s class. One of the Irish legends on the list – Rocket Ismail – has been up for the Hall of Fame for years and has repeatedly been snubbed by voters. It’s about time that comes to and end and Rocket hears his name called for a long overdue honor.
In the age of modern day statistics, Rocket Ismail’s numbers don’t actually look overly impressive and therein lies the most likely underlying reason Ismail hasn’t been placed in the Hall of Fame yet. Ismail amassed 4,187 total yards in his three year Irish career. Good numbers but in the day of spread offenses and video game style scoring, they don’t look Hall of Fame worthy. Anyone who knows college football though – and you’d hope the writers who are privileged enough to vote for the Hall of Fame would – knows that stats don’t tell the story of the Rocket.
Rocket Ismail was easily one of the most feared college football players of the late 1980’s and arguably of all-time. He was a player that had to be game planned for specifically by every opponent and if they didn’t, they paid the price. He was a threat to score every single time he touched the football whether that be through the air, on the ground, or on a kick/punt return. The Rocket was scary good and made anyone who tried to tackle him look like a kid trying to catch up to a man.
In 1989 the Rocket was a consensus All-American. A year later, he was a unanimous All-American and was runner up for the Heisman Trophy in one of the worst examples of voters falling in love with stats and leaving logic behind. Ty Detmer took home the Heisman and went on to an OK professional career, but Detmer was hardly a feared opponent. Detmer played in an offense that inflated his stats and he feasted on opponents that had no defense. That wasn’t the case with Rocket Ismail.
Lou Holtz didn’t exactly have offenses that put up crazy statistics anywhere other than the win column. Holtz used a lot of running backs and simply pounded the football down opponents throats and used the passing game to keep opponents honest. Ismail, as a football player with track speed, still was able to impact the game at all levels.
At His Best Against the Best
Look back at every big Notre Dame during their run in the late 80’s and Rocket most likely had at least one big downfield play in the passing game and he did it from day one. There he was making a big play in the epic 1988 showdown with Miami as a true freshman. He also scored a touchdown as freshman in the Fiesta Bowl win over West Virginia that secured Notre Dame’s most recent national championship.
That was Rocket Ismail though. The man simply played his best when the stakes were the highest. In 1989 when Notre Dame traveled to Ann Arbor, Bo Schembechler made the mistake of kicking to the Rocket… twice. Bo wasn’t the only one to make the mistake of kicking to the Rocket twice though, he was just the last. Ismail also returned two kickoffs for touchdowns as a freshman in 1988 against Rice. Returning two kicks for touchdowns in the same game twice is still a NCAA record.
In Miami’s last trip to South Bend in 1990 prior to last year’s, Rocket got things started with a kickoff return for a touchdown. Later that season Rocket made one of the greatest plays that never was when he returned a punt for a touchdown that should have put a dagger into Colorado’s national championship aspirations in the Orange Bowl but alas that phantom clip.
No Player Like Him Today
If Ismail played in today’s game, the statistics the man would have amassed would be mind boggling. Imagine Ismail in a spread offense today. He’d likely be able to run and receive for 1,000 yards in the same season and could probably score 20 touchdowns a season. He was untackleable 30 years ago and even with bigger and faster athletes today trying to tackle him, he’d still leave defenses in his dust.
Hell, the Rocket would have even most likely been able to catch some of all those passes Brian Kelly kept calling in the hurricane against NC State last fall. Ok, so maybe even he couldn’t have done that since no one could have but you get the point.
There have been very few college football players to put on a uniform for any team in the last 30 years who have been as feared as Rocket Ismail. Reggie Bush’s name comes to mind. Percy Harvin’s too since he impacted the game in as many ways as the Rocket. Other than those two though, name a player in the last 30 years who could score any time they touched the football in 3 different ways?
It’s time the Hall of Fame voters stop looking strictly at stats and realize there have very few players ever to play the game who had the skillset the Rocket had. For three seasons at Notre Dame Ismail consistently made plays that only a handful of players ever to play college football could have ever made. It’s long overdue that the Rocket joins those other plays in the College Football Hall of Fame.