Take the Money & Run
Looking back at the player who spurned the NFL for the Canadian Football League
Everyone expected Notre Dame wide receiver/kick returner Raghib Ismail to be the top overall pick by the Dallas Cowboys in the 1991 NFL Draft, until he did the unimaginable, and signed a contract with the Canadian Football League’s Toronto Argonauts.
Ismail had 18.2 million reasons to go north.
While star players today make nearly twice that amount in a season, Ismail’s four-year deal, which averaged $4.55 million a season was then the largest amount paid to a player on either side of the border.
The “Rocket” had pizazz, and that’s what the Argonauts’ ownership group of Bruce McNall, who owned the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings, hockey player Wayne Gretzky, and actor John Candy were looking for.
While at Notre Dame, Ismail helped the Irish win the National Championship and finish ranked second a year later. He made his name in a nationally televised game against rival Michigan, in which he returned two kickoffs for touchdowns. Sports Illustrated put him on their cover multiple times. He was a consensus selection for All-American honors. He finished second in Heisman Trophy voting in his senior year to Brigham Young University quarterback Ty Detmer.
In his first season in the CFL, the Argonauts won the Grey Cup – their Super Bowl – when they defeated the Calgary Stampeders 36–21. In the game, Rocket had an 87-yard touchdown on a kickoff return and was named MVP.
The next season was a disaster on and off the field for the Argos. The team finished 6–12 and missed the playoffs. Worse, McNall fell into economic difficulty and had to start liquidating assets.
After just two seasons in the CFL, Ismail signed with Los Angeles Raiders. But for all of his sizzle in college, he mostly fizzled in the NFL. He had 1,357 receiving yards and five touchdowns in three seasons with the Raiders before he was traded to the Carolina Panthers just before the start of the 1996 season. There he tallied a career-low 214 yards and zero TDs in 1996, 419 yards and two TDs in 1997, and 1,024 yards and eight touchdowns in 1998. He parlayed those numbers into a free-agent contract with the Cowboys. He recorded a career-high 1,097 yards and six touchdowns in his first season with America’s Team, but injuries plagued him the next three seasons. In 2000 he tore the ACL in his right knee and sprained the MCL in the same knee the next year. He missed the entire 2002 season after suffering a herniated disk in his neck in a training camp collision with a teammate. He was released after the season and retired.
Today, Ismail is an inspirational speaker. He’s remembered as being an all-time great. He was named the No. 75 player on College Football News’ Top 100 Greatest College Football Players of All-Time and named to Sports Illustrated’s 85-man All-20th Century College Football Team. But he’ll forever be known as the man who passed on most football players’ biggest dream – to be the NFL’s top overall draft choice – to play football in Canada.
This season, his son, Raghib, Jr., will play wide receiver for Texas Christian University.