To me, Rocket Ismail is the embodiment of Notre Dame football. I was a bit too young to live through the Tim Brown era–and while I have vague memories of the 1988 National Championship–it had already been placed in my brain that winning was normal for the Fighting Irish. To be expected, right?
Tuesday, January 1, 1991 is the first concrete memory I have of watching a Notre Dame game from start to finish. In a few weeks I’d be turning 9 years old and the combined experience of joy turned to disbelief presented at the end of the ’91 Orange Bowl couldn’t have been a more apt introduction to the decades of fandom to come.
After a far too long wait, Rocket Ismail will finally be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame 28 years after his final game at Notre Dame and a punt return touchdown that never was.
Rocket had a curious career insofar as looking back through the media guides you might be not be able to understand his true impact in college while his professional career started out in the CFL and away from the brighter lights of the NFL. He was the type of athlete that didn’t always fit well in to the early Holtz option offenses as evidenced by Ismail not receiving a single carry from scrimmage as a freshman. He scored 15 total touchdowns in his career, including just 8 scores from scrimmage, and finished his 3 years with 2,580 total yards from scrimmage. Five players in history, including Christian McCaffrey a few years ago, had more yards from scrimmage in one season.
However, Rocket fully lived up this name as someone who wasn’t around very long but when he touched the ball he was full of fireworks powered by jet fuel. His speed and acceleration were legendary, allowing him to be only the 4th two-sport All-American in Notre Dame history with a 6.07 time in the indoor 55 meter race, better speed than the likes of Bo Jackson, Willie Gault, Darrell Green, and Notre Dame’s own Allen Rossum. Ismail ran a 4.27 time in the 40-yard dash during the NFL Combine–one of the best marks of all-time–and is said to have ran a 4.18 40-yard dash on campus for scouts. Whether the last figure is accurate has been a debate for years.
— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) January 7, 2019
Either way, Rocket was special for how well his track speed translated to the football field. No one before or since has got to the edge of the defense and raced past defenders quite like #25 for the Irish.
His numbers are best digestible in his averages. As a runner he posted 7.7 yards per carry on 131 carries and 22.0 yards per reception on 71 career catches. As a punt returner he averaged 13.4 yards and as a kick returner 27.6 yards. Any of these stats by themselves would’ve made Rocket a great college player but packaging it all together is what made him special.
When I close my eyes and think about Notre Dame, he’ll always be the first player who pops in to my head. In a way, I’m glad he Rocket didn’t come around when I was older and able to watch every single second of his career unfold from when he was in high school and onward. I’d probably be complaining about his lack of efficiency running the football! Keeping that childhood mythical status is just perfect.
Congratulations to Rocket on being Notre Dame’s 47th player inducted into the Hall of Fame.