Remember the Rocket?

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April 22, 2006
Remember the Rocket?

by Keith Weiland

Fifteen years ago is like ancient history for the NFL, where once-in-a-generation prospects seem to come around about once every five years. What with the fast pace of today’s league, looking back on the long-forgotten 1991 draft might help shed the 2006 draft in a little different light.

The Texans are holding the top pick in draft, and as such they are performing their due diligence, testing the trade down scenarios and holding up for consumption their apparent top two choices: USC running back Reggie Bush and North Carolina State defensive end Mario Williams. Taking either would signal a significant change at the top from recent drafts. Should either Bush or Williams be selected as the top pick next week, that player will be the first non-quarterback taken number one overall since the 2000 draft; that is, more than an “NFL generation” ago.

These are talented players. Bush is the electrifying and mold-breaking prospect who seems capable of scoring every time he touches a football. Every place he goes nowadays must feel like walking into the “Cheers” bar for him because everyone knows his name. Williams is the prototype defensive lineman that toiled for far fewer accolades. NFL scouts though know just how important an elite defensive lineman is when it comes to building a championship team.

And NFL front offices know the first pick is also about the dollars, too. Nowadays, it is common for the team with the top selection in the draft to negotiate with potential draftees before making the pick. The Texans are likely to begin serious negotiations with their top prospects any day now. While Bush has denied he has opened negotiations demanding $30 million in guaranteed money, it still isn’t too far from what the top pick will actually receive.

Back to 1991. Back then, the top picks weren’t always signed on draft day. So at the top of the draft, the Cowboys were blazing a trail of sorts in talking pre-draft financials with another electrifying and mold-breaking prospect, one named Raghib “Rocket” Ismail. For those who didn’t follow the league three NFL generations ago, Ismail was, well in today’s terms, the shiznit. He starred at Notre Dame, which then was also the shiznit of college football, as Ismail helped the Irish win a National Championship during his tenure.

Ismail was atypical as an NFL prospect. Under six feet tall as a game-breaking receiver, he was probably better known for his game-breaking return ability. But he had speed, vision, and awesome natural athletic skills that could not be coached. There was no one like Ismail before him. He was truly unique.

Bush is also unique. He is not built like your typical NFL running back, stocky and strong. Bush’s game is built on his speed, vision, and his own set of awesome natural athletic skills. It is no coincidence then, like Ismail, Bush also succeeded as a returner in college.

Fifteen years ago, Ismail and his advisors knew he was worthy of the top pick of the draft, and they knew he deserved the dollars that went along with it. But just as today, NFL teams were hesitant to fork over that kind of cash for someone who didn’t play quarterback.

One team apparently wasn’t afraid. The Cowboys, led by a still relatively new and pioneering owner in Jerry Jones, traded up with the Patriots. Doing so, Jones put himself in position to take the college game’s biggest star. The bling-blinging Cowboys, who were coming off a 7-9 season and had already assembled their big three of Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin, seemed like a match made in heaven for Ismail. Can’t you just imagine how explosive that offense might have been if it had added a unique talent like the Rocket?

Well, it didn’t happen, and you can blame Canada for that. The CFL’s Argonauts, in a brash move, offered Ismail a then-unheard of $18.2 million over four years. Per year, it was more than what most CFL teams were paying ALL of its players combined. It dwarfed what the NFL’s best receiver, Jerry Rice, was scheduled to make in 1991. Ismail sent the offer to Jones and told him that this was the price of doing business.

But Jones, with his head coach Jimmy Johnson, had a Plan B for the draft. One look at Ismail’s contract demands, and the Cowboys turned their sights to their top-rated defensive prospect, Russell Maryland. Johnson had recruited Maryland when he was still the coach of the Miami Hurricanes, and while he may not have had the flash of Ismail, he knew what he was getting. And Jones knew he would be paying a lot less for Maryland, too.

The Cowboys balked at the sizzle and went for the steak. Maryland may not have ever been an electrifying player, but he was a useful part of three Super Bowl teams. As for Ismail, he won a Grey Cup (the CFL’s championship) in his rookie season, but he was back in the NFL one year later. While he never lived up to his pre-draft hype, Ismail was serviceable as a pro, even playing for the Cowboys before retiring.

So fast forward fifteen years to Bush and the 2006 draft. The Texans appear to have their Plan B in place with Williams, and this time, the CFL likely won’t be calling. But can Bush and the Texans agree to terms on a contract before time expires and the Texans send their pick up to the podium?

Keith Weiland knows making your way in the world today takes everything you got. Taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot. Wouldn’t you like to get away? Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came. You wanna be where you can see our troubles are all the same. You wanna be where everybody knows your name. Rocket Ismail Rocket Ismail Home

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