#17 Raghib “Rocket” Ismail, WR/KR/PR/RB 1988-1990
Notre Dame’s most explosive player ever was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, but was a prep star at Elmer L. Meyers High School in Wilkes-Barre in Northeast Pennsylvania in the fertile Lehigh River Valley. Notre Dame had to fend off Joe Paterno’s “anti-poaching” rules to snag Ismail.
When Ismail arrived in South Bend, he immediately dazzled on the practice field and “Raghib” went into atrophy. He became, and ever will remain, the Rocket.
Lou Holtz had plans to fully weaponize Rocket Ismail, but Lou strove to let patience do its perfect work and unwrapped Ismail slowly. Through all of ’88 he touched the ball only 29 times, but they were wisely allocated.
October 15, 1988 Notre Dame Vs Miami
The most hyped game since Notre Dame’s win over USC in ’77 had the crowd foaming at the mouth. With the Irish tied with Miami at 7-7, the Irish faced a third and 12 and Rice unleashed a 57 yard bomb to Ismail. It set up a Braxston Banks run for a touchdown, and the Irish never trailed thereafter. Rocket Ismail was no longer a practice field secret.
Three weeks later, the Rocket exploded onto the national scene with a record-tying two kickoff return touchdowns against Rice in a comfortable 54-11 win. Somewhere, in Ann Arbor, Bo Schembechler smirked that Barberton smirk and said “that could never happen to Michigan!” Not so fast, Bo!
Penn State arrived in South Bend in late November, and Holtz rubbed some Rocket-salt in the recruiting wounds of Joe Paterno by unleashing Ismail for a 67 yard bomb in a 21-3 Irish win. Tough spot of luck there, Joe!
In the regular season finale against USC in the Coliseum the Irish were backed up in the Peristyle end and Rice arched a 55 yard bomb to Ismail to get the Irish out of harm’s way.
In the National Championship game against West Virginia Ismail caught a slant pass from Tony Rice for a 29 yard TD. It gave the Irish a 23-3 lead over Major Harris and the Mountaineers and effectively clinched the National Championship.
Just 29 plays as a frosh. Most thought Holtz would expand Ismail’s role as a sophomore. And then some! It would quadruple in ’89.
1989: By Any Means Available
SEPTEMBER 16, 1989 NOTRE DAME VERSUS MICHIGAN
It was the last time that Notre Dame and Michigan would meet in a #1 VS. #2 matchup. The sky was an Armageddon, rainy, gray in Washtenaw County and Bo, having lost to Notre Dame and Holtz twice in a row, was bound and determined to win the home game, pounding the Irish with elephant backs Leroy Hoard and Jarrod Bunch. But Ismail stabbed Bo twice in the heart as if Schembechler was the Antichrist.
With Notre Dame holding a 7-6 lead, the second half began with Michigan kicking off to the Irish. The Wolverines had not given up a kickoff return TD in 32 years. Not any more. Ismail went 88 yards behind a Culver block to make the score 14-6.
After Elvis Grbac came off the bench to lead a comeback, the Irish still led 17-12 when Michigan kicked off again. Ismail stabbed Bo for a second time with a 90 yard kickoff return for a TD and the Irish led 23-12. Until Ismail, Bo had never lost three times in a row to the same opponent. You’re welcome, Bo!
With Ismail having added some needed muscle, Holtz began tactical deployment of Ismail as a runner, to complete his portfolio. For all of ’89 Ismail had 64 carries for 478 yards, 27 receptions for 535 yards, 20 kickoff returns for 502 yards and 7 punt returns for 103 yards. Against #7 Pitt in South Bend and Joe Paterno’s Nittany Lions in State College, Ismail entered and dominated in the second half after the brilliant Holtz had pounded the defenses with bigger backs in the fist half. It was almost unfair to watch Rocket speed and slither by leg-weary, bruised defensive linemen and linebackers. Baron Von Clausewitz could not have orchestrated the battle plan any better.
1990: America’s Most Dangerous Weapon
In 1990, despite a kerfuffle with Holtz that kept him out of the second half of the Penn State game, a 24-21 Irish loss, Ismail was at his best, 67 carries for 537 rushing yards, 32 receptions for 699 yards, 14 kickoff returns for 336 yards including a TD against Miami in an Irish victory and 13 punt returns for 151 yards.
He was a nightmare both for defensive coordinators and for special teams coaches.
Rocket’s final play in a Notre Dame uniform was as breathtaking as any of his prior moments. Bill McCartney’s Colorado Buffaloes were trying to hold onto a 10-9 lead with 1:05 to go in the Fourth Quarter. McCartney, after all, a protege of Bo Schembechler, elected to punt to Ismail. You can’t fix Stubborn! Rocket took it all the way, but Greg Davis was called for a clipping penalty, malum prohibitum, rather than malum in se. Colorado held on for the win.
Rocket Ismail Had “It”
With the rise of Fantasy Football, we get overwhelmed by statistics. But Greatness can never be captured in the accountants’ tool: meager, soulless numbers. The above numbers are some evidence, but the reason Ismail is on this list is “IT.” He had more “IT” than anyone we’ve seen.
Ivan Pavlov’s dogs increased salivation, dilated their eyes and wagged their tails when Pavlov sounded the buzzer or metronome he customarily sounded before feeding them. For we, we happy few, we band of Irish brothers who lived through the Rocket Age, we understand. For our eyes dilated and we began salivating when we heard “Ismail splits wide” or “back to return the kick-Rocket Ismail.”
He made us move forward in our seat or stand up, he widened our eyes and made our hair stand up, he brightened the day and lit up the night. After all, he was the “Rocket.”
17- Raghib “Rocket” Ismail, ALL PURPOSE, 1988-1990
#18 Tom Clements, Quarterback, 1972-1974
#19 Chris Zorich, Nose Tackle, 1988-1990
#20 Aaron Taylor, Guard/Tackle, 1990-1993
#21 Nick Buoniconti, Linebacker/Guard, 1958-1961
#22 Ken MacAfee, Tight End, 1974-1977
#23 Bill “Moose” Fischer, Left Guard, 1945-1948
#24 Todd Lyght, Cornerback, 1987-1990
#25 Louis “Red” Salmon, Fullback, 1900-1903