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 hosted some events in New Orleans for the College Football Playoff National Championship game.
Jack Leniart: From your days playing freshmen football, you grew into a higher profile high school football player and eventually Notre Dame came knocking. When did coach Holtz and his staff start recruiting you in high school and what were some of the key things that sold you on Notre Dame?
Rocket Ismail: In seventh grade, Brian Dwyer was just coming to my school. We went to Meyers High School, where they had 7th through 12th in the same building. Everybody was there together.
His (Brian’s) dad moved to Wilkes-Barre because he wanted Brian to play for who he felt was the best high school coach in the area. That was our coach at Meyers, his name was Mickey Gorham. He was actually a graduate of Notre Dame. I think he graduated around ’66 or ’68 or something like that.
When my grandmother finally got to the point where she was feeling like she knew the Dwyers were good people, she let me sleep over at Brian’s house. Brian and I were in the basement and we were playing ColecoVision. I think the game was Spiderman or Superman or something like that. And we were playing it until we both collapsed on the floor late at night.
We were sprawled out in the basement and I had a dream. I was in a field of flowers and there was this really good aroma that I was smelling. Then I was abruptly startled out of that dream by the sound of a man barking orders. So when I wake up, I was disoriented, looking around like, “what’s going on?”
Back in the day they had these chairs called La-Z-Boys. Big, lavish, plush chairs that you would sit in and, if they were high-level, you could extend the leg rest out and recline the chair.
So he (Mr. Dwyer) was sitting there, and I thought I was looking at a real-life version of this cartoon character named Mr. Magoo. He smiled because he saw the startled expression on my face, and he said, “You hear that, laddybuck?” which was actually an album from the Notre Dame marching band.
What I had heard in my dream was the band director, or whoever was introducing the band, giving an instruction to the band. So he (Mr. Dwyer) said, “You hear that, laddybuck? That’s the finest band in the land. Get over here and let me tell you about the Fighting Irish.”
Literally, when he did that, he played the fight song on the album. So it was coming out of the stereo. Then, on the television we were playing video games on, they had a Beta VCR player. He put in Wake Up The Echoes. When he put that on, it felt like I was watching Lord Of The Rings or The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Like some crazy fantasy or mythical place like that.
After I watched that, from that day on almost every day I was with him he would tell us stories about Notre Dame. He volunteered as a coach for our high school team. So say he was at a coaches meeting during the summer. We (Brian and I) were low men on the totem pole of the team so we would have to clean up the varsity locker room and organize the equipment room.
Anytime Mr. Dwyer got a break, he would come in, light up his pipe and tell us stories about all the great Notre Dame legends and other people that had influence during the time or when he was younger. He would always talk about that, and every time he finished talking about it — and mind you I was in 8th or 9th grade at the time — he would look at me and say, “And you’re going to be there one day. And you’re going to be legendary.”
So I was like, “OK. Yeah. This is fitting right in. I guess you have to go to college before you go pro.” So it worked right with how I was planning out my life subconsciously.
The summer before my junior year of high school, I went to a Syracuse football camp. My brothers and I went up to Syracuse, New York. They held this football camp at the Carrier Dome, which was like one of the wonders of the world to me when I was younger. It was like, “Wow. Indoor football on a college campus. This is amazing.”
There was about 300 guys there, and we were running 40s. Up until that time, I had only run a 4.7 timed, which was my freshman year of high school. Everybody said that was fast, so I thought I was fast. We get started and it was just like a herd of children running 40s, getting timed, running 40s, getting timed.
So I run my 40 and coach Randy Edsall and coach Ivan Fears were the two timers. I ran my 40 and I came back to get my time from them. They both had their mouths open and they were looking at their stopwatches and then looking at each other. They were like, “Well, what did you get? No, what did you get?” Then they looked at each other and then looked at me and said, “Hey. Can you run that again?”
I was like, “Oh. OK.” So I walked back down to the starting line and another coach asked me what my time was. Because we were supposed to get our times from the timers and then give it to the starter so they could record it. I said, “No, they told me I have to run it again.”
I get down in my stance. Bam. I run it again. This time they (the coaches) all went and congregated with each other, and then they went over to the stands where all the high school coaches were. And I wasn’t sure if something was wrong. They told me to just go back down to the start. So I went back to the start. The coach asked me again, “What time did you get?” I said, “They didn’t tell me.”
Then it was like an audible wave. About 40 yards from where we were standing was where they were. The stands were to our right, and in the stands are all the high school coaches and some college coaches as well. We heard a murmur, and then it just grew into this uproar. It started on the end, and it was like *whispers* *louder whispers* *louder talking* “4.3. What? 4.3. HE RAN A 4.3!”
Everyone. The whole stands. I say the whole stands, that might have been 50 people. But, it was such a big deal. Everybody was like, “Oh my god.” It would be the equivalent of a high schooler running closer to 4.1 now. It was unheard of. Like”4.3. What the heck?” I remember Mr. Dwyer and coach Gorham were like, “OK. We have to go.”
From that moment, Penn State, Notre Dame Maryland, and everybody else got on the radar. In my mind, the seed was planted so early about Notre Dame. It would have been such a let down and disappointment to me if I didn’t go there.
Mr. Dwyer said I was going to go there. He said I was going to be legendary. I’m running all these great times. My teachers are helping me with all my classes. I’m doing good in school. Blah blah blah. It was just a matter of time before it happened.
Then coach Holtz and Joe Paterno and all those guys started showing up my senior year. I thought I messed up the coach Holtz visit. Back in the day — I don’t know why they did this — when they listed my size and weight in the program they would always list me at 5’10” 170 lbs.
I didn’t weigh 100 lbs until my sophomore year of high school. So I’m tiny. As a matter of fact — I’m sorry — I didn’t weigh 100 lbs until after my sophomore year. My high school coach wouldn’t put me in the game until after the first half just for safety reasons. Like, “Man we just gotta make sure this cat doesn’t get killed.”
I wasn’t 5’10” until I was about 22. I probably was more like 5’7” or 5’8”. My senior year, the heaviest I weighed was 166 lbs. When you look at that compared to everybody else, that was crazy. My brother Qadry was a fullback. He was a legitimate, 5’10” 170 lbs.
One day, they call both of us out of class to meet coach Holtz. You know how you get trained for when you meet somebody you shake their hand and look them in the eye. When we walked into the room, I walked in first and my brother, who was bigger than me, was right behind me.
Coach Holtz walked up to me and said, “You must be Qadry. So nice to meet you.” And I told him, “No, coach. I’m Rocket.” When I said that, I looked at him and I could see his eyes dilate. He was probably so upset with himself for making that mistake. I’m sure he was kicking himself thinking he messed up our first meeting.
But after that, it was a great relationship. You know how coach Holtz always had those one liners. He would say to me, “Son, you could come to Notre Dame to be a part of something truly special. But even if you don’t, Notre Dame is still going to achieve great things without you.”