I had the honor of speaking with Notre Dame legend and College Football Hall of Famer Raghib “Rocket” Ismail about growing up playing football, being recruited by Lou Holtz, and choosing Notre Dame. Rocket is partnering with Panini America and hosting events in New Orleans for the College Football Playoff National Championship game.
Jack Leniart: In preparation for this interview, I was talking with some of my friends about this conversation and one of my buddies jokingly said, “Are you gonna ask him what it’s like to score touchdowns all the time?” I laughed at that a bit, but it kind of made me wonder if anyone has ever asked you that question?
Rocket Ismail: Maybe eight years ago I was at a function in Dallas with some friends. One of our friends was the Pop Warner football team’s coach in the area. Emmitt Smith’s son (Emmitt Smith Jr.), who was nine or ten years old at the time, was on his team. We were talking about how kids say the darndest things. Emmitt Jr was angry one day in practice so the coach went over to him and asked, “What’s wrong? Why are you frustrated?” So Emmitt Jr said, “I only scored seven touchdowns.”
The coach was like, “Wait a minute. You can’t score every time you touch the ball.” This was not too long after Emmitt Smith Sr. had broken the NFL’s career touchdown record. So Emmitt Jr said to his coach, “Well my daddy does, how come I can’t do that?”
For me, that question has never been asked. I think it hasn’t been asked because I might have scored in bits and pieces in my Notre Dame career, but I really wasn’t a scoring machine per se. I was more like a big moment player.
For us at Notre Dame, back in the day, I probably played in a “Game of the Century” every year. It was a big deal. Those were the focal point of the season for college football lovers. We had a bunch of those big moments.
As far as just scoring, especially how they do nowadays in these offenses, that wasn’t something that I had the pleasure of being a part of.
JL: When did you first start playing organized football? And when did you know it was something you wanted to pursue as a potential career?
RI: The very first time football captured my imagination was when I was five years old. I remember watching the Super Bowl. We were at a Super Bowl party and I remember watching the Cowboys and the Steelers.
My sister was actually watching the game and I was going to come up behind her and pull a prank on her. And I was stopped in my tracks when I saw what was on the television screen. It was like I was mesmerized.
In that moment, my sister explained to me what football was and who the teams were. She told me that she was rooting for the Cowboys. So naturally when she asked me, “Do you like the Cowboys?” I said, “No, I like the other team.” So I grew up a Steelers fan.
That was my first “I’m going to do this” moment with regards to football. Then from there, I was playing football any time I had a chance. When I say playing football, I mean just in the streets, light pole to light pole, in the park, anywhere.
Even in the schoolyard we would get a crushed milk carton and play kill the man with the carton. Then two-hand touch progressed to what we would call “hold,” where if someone could grab you and stop your momentum, you were tackled.
Shortly after my father died when I was ten years old, I remember going out for a team in Orange, New Jersey called the Buccaneers. After that, my next organized football experience was when we moved to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. I was in the seventh grade and went out for the freshmen team. The reason I went out for the freshmen team is because I was like a week too old to join the Pop Warner team.
JL: Was that a tough jump for you to make as a seventh-grader?
RI: It was tough because I wasn’t big enough. The football couldn’t fit in between my hand and my forearm. I couldn’t hold it in my hand like that and I couldn’t cradle it there. Because of that, the fumbling was bad. If I was coming through the middle and got popped, the ball would fly up in the air.
My very first game, I’ll never forget it, we were playing the Wyoming Area Warriors. They were a team probably about 20 minutes up the road from Wilkes-Barre proper. I remember getting the ball off-tackle and I thought I saw a hole. I ran for the hole and all of the sudden it was like I was sucked into a black hole of darkness.
It was pop pop pop pop pop. It felt like I was getting hit with wiffle ball bats. Before I knew it, the ball was gone. When we looked back at the film, it was like I went into this vortex of violence. The ball just literally popped up into the air like 30 feet. It was crazy.
It was difficult because of that and because the guys were older. I was fast, but I wasn’t as fast as I grew to be around my ninth grade year. So it was a tough transition, but I was tough.
When I was younger and living in Newark, one of the things that would always motivate and encourage me was when the older guys that would watch us play would say to me, “Lil man, you got heart.” Just hearing that statement was like somebody had given me an injection of courage and I just felt like, “I’m tough.” That helped me get through that first year of freshmen football.
This was part one of a two-part interview with Raghib “Rocket” Ismail. The second part of this interview will be published on Slap the Sign later this week.