Notre Dame football fans will forever want to know if Raghib “Rocket” Ismail can still fire up the afterburners.
“Hey, Rocket,” one middle-aged man said during an hourlong meet-and-greet with the College Football Hall of Famer. “Can you still run a 4.3?”
“Mentally,” the 51-year-old Ismail said, a smile creasing his thickening beard. “Mentally, I can definitely do it.”
A little later, a female fan posed the question in a different way.
“Are you still fast?” the woman asked.
“I am,” Ismail said in between the raindrops outside Notre Dame Stadium. “I just am in a different category of speed now.”
Three decades ago, the pride of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., was in a different category when it came to national popularity and marketability. The production was there, including six kickoff or punt returns for touchdowns in his three years on campus.
So was the mystique, the charisma and the outsize personality. In Fighting Irish coach Lou Holtz, Ismail had his personal hype man.
Ismail was a freshman on Notre Dame’s last national title team, in 1988. By his junior year of 1990, he was a controversial runner-up to BYU’s Ty Detmer, who passed for nearly 5,200 yards but also threw 28 interceptions.
Just imagine if college student-athletes could have cut their own endorsement deals back then? Perhaps Ismail might have stayed for his senior season instead of jumping to the Canadian Football League on a record-setting, four-year, $18.2 million deal.
Ismail smiles again when the topic of Name, Image and Likeness is raised.
“My first thought — I’m thinking now as a 51-year-old man — was the first thing I would do is I would go over to the business school,” Ismail said. “I’d be hanging out in Mendoza trying to figure out which professors teach marketing, which professors teach the process of representation in the marketing realm.”
“I’d be sitting down with the finance department, figuring out, ‘OK, how do you, in representation, divvy up the pie?’ “ he said. “I wouldn’t know what percentage — 20, 25 — people take. None of that.”
Most of that is getting sorted out on the fly in the wake of July 1 and the NIL starting gates being flung open in most states. Some believe, even at a school that has produced seven Heisman winners, Ismail would have been best-positioned of all to rake in the extra bucks while still wearing the golden helmet.
“I believe it would have been fun, for sure,” said Ismail, the former ESPN football analyst and Slamball coach. “But again, I’m looking at it in hindsight. At the time I didn’t know all of that stuff. If it would have come out then, I would have been at the (business school).”
Asked about the potential distraction of NIL, especially at the programs churning out future pros on a regular basis, Ismail batted that one aside.
“It’s not a distraction if the infrastructure (is in place),” he said. “And the Notre Dame infrastructure, just with the Notre Dame, I hate to say ‘brand,’ but just the name ‘Notre Dame’ and what it represents in a marketplace — the people in that infrastructure sit down with you and say, ‘Hey, this is what to expect. This is how to handle it. This is how to look at it.’ “
It’s a lot for a budding young athlete to handle. Yet, Ismail, who played nine seasons in the NFL, is confident Notre Dame will be at the forefront of the guidance process in this brave new NIL world.
“I know they have mental health services,” he said. “The people in those arenas can help you with how to process it as an 18- 19- 20 year old. All of the things are in place to help you succeed. I feel like it wouldn’t have been something that would have been overwhelming at all.”
Maybe not, but would Holtz, his fellow College Football Hall of Famer, have gone along with it?
“You know what,” Ismail said, “I’m going to say ‘yes’ just because anybody that smart, that witty, that has that kind of insight and also understands (branding), I definitely believe he would have.”