Even now, 21 years after he bolted 87 yards to clinch the 1991 Grey Cup Championship for the Toronto Argonauts, Raghib (Rocket) Ismail is tough to pin down.
The 43-year-old Texan has been a Muslim and a Christian, and worn CFL and NFL jerseys. He's invested in a string of doomed business ventures ranging from phone card dispensers to cosmetic procedures, and struck gold with mouth guards. A former bull-riding reality television star, he's coached the bizarre sport of Slamball, a full-contact form of basketball played on trampolines.
When the Argonauts and Calgary Stampeders battle on Sunday, it will be tough to rival the magic of the last time they vied the Cup, and Ismail stole the show. That electrifying game was a fitting ending to perhaps the most fabled season in CFL history, complete with Hollywood glamour, rivers of cash, and Ismail, the hot rookie prospect from the University of Notre Dame who the Argos stole from under the NFL's nose with a then-unheard of $18-million, four-year contract.
The famously media-shy Ismail could not commit to an interview for this story, despite several requests. But according to Argos teammates and managers who've remained his friend over the years, Ismail is the same as he was back when he was a 21-year-old recruit: charismatic, energetic, and always on the go.
"He's usually flying all around the country," said former Argos teammate Carl Brazley. "He does motivational stuff, they get him to come back to his school at Notre Dame all the time. He speaks to a lot of business groups about just some of the things he's been through, the perseverance, and a lot of team things as well."
After a storied college career, Ismail shot to international fame at age 21 when the newly minted Argos owners, Bruce McNall, Wayne Gretzky and actor John Candy, made him a stunning offer of $18.2-million over four years. That meant $4.55-million a season, of which only $100,000 counted toward the CFL's then $3-million salary cap.
The investment seemed to pay off in Ismail's rookie season; he came within 50 yards of eclipsing the franchise record for single-season kickoff return yardage set by Michael (Pinball) Clemons, made the 1991 all-star team as a wide receiver, finished runner-up to Jon Volpe for rookie of the year. Then, there was that dazzling 87-yard dash that made him the game MVP.
"I picked up the ball, looked up and took a couple of steps and broke to the middle," Ismail said recently in a story published on CFL.ca. "There was a gaping hole there, but one guy was standing there. I cut to the right and he fell or whatever. I cut to the sidelines and I saw their kicker and someone else trying to get the angle on me.
"But I knew I was going to score. I looked around and held the ball up and said 'Yeah, yeah, I can't believe I'm doing this.'"
Mike McCarthy, general manager of the Argos that year, said in an interview that he was just happy Ismail had that moment after all the scrutiny and attention that year. "[The touchdown] just added to the folklore of that game, and that season for Rocket. He came in as a kid – he's not Michael Jordan, not Wayne Gretzky. There was tremendous pressure on him at all times."
The following year things fell apart, with the Argos slumping to a 6-12 record and missing the playoffs. At one particularly low point, Ismail took part in a sideline brawl against the Stampeders and stomped an opposing player's helmeted face. With McNall in increasing financial trouble, Ismail quit after that season and began what would be a nine-year NFL career.
McCarthy, now a scout for the Montreal Alouettes, recalls seeing Ismail at NFL training camps, where he would hook his arm around his neck, pointing out "this is my GM from Canada!"
"I think his [two years in the CFL] made him ready for the NFL. He left here as a stronger personality," McCarthy said.
Ismail played on three NFL teams over nine seasons, but only went over 1,000 yards in two seasons.
These days, he lives in Texas with his wife, Melani and four children, and travels the country doing appearances for the Dallas Cowboys (the team he played on when he retired in 2001), promoting his investments including Bite Tech mouthguards, and giving motivational talks. Despite several failed business ventures, Ismail has not squandered away all of his money, Brazley said.
"He lost some money in deals, but he's not broke. I remember him saying to me, 'I read online that I'm broke. That's funny,'" Brazley recalled.
Most recently, Ismail has forged a public-speaking career. And while he has mused about turning to ministry (he converted to Christianity from Islam in his early teens), being a full-fledged minister isn't Rocket's style, Brazley said.
"He's real serious about his ministry, but what Rocket will tell you, more or less, he doesn't label it that."
"He's helped out a ton of people. It would blow you away if people knew what he's done for people. Helped people keep their homes. ... But he'd probably kill me if he knew I'd told you."
It's unlikely Ismail will be in Toronto for the 100th Grey Cup celebrations, Brazley said. Ismail had committed to an appearance for the Cowboys, and didn't want to leave them in the lurch.