TORONTO — Raghib (Rocket) Ismail will forever be part of Grey Cup folklore.
It was the former Notre Dame star’s electrifying 87-yard kickoff return that anchored the Toronto Argonauts’ 36-21 win over the Calgary Stampeders in the ’91 title game. Ismail’s thrilling play earned him game MVP honours and came right after the Stamps had scored to cut Toronto’s lead to 22-21 early in the fourth quarter at a frigid Winnipeg Stadium.
But the play’s defining moment came before Ismail, the CFL’s top rookie that year, scored Toronto’s game-clinching TD. Seconds before he crossed the goal-line, a beer can thrown from the stands could be seen exploding violently upon impact behind him.
On Saturday, Ismail will headline the list of former Argos who will celebrate the 20th anniversary of that championship when Toronto faces the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
"There were actually two beer cans thrown on that play," recollected Mike McCarthy, who was the GM of the ’91 Argos. "The other landed in the end zone after he scored and he didn’t see either one and fortunately neither hit him.
"But Rocket had a good story relating to that about when he played at Notre Dame and they were at Tennessee. He also scored a kickoff return touchdown in that game and heard this ‘whoosh, whoosh’ sound from a Jack Daniels bottle that had just missed his head. I remember him saying, ‘I heard that one coming, because every time the bottle turned it made that whooshing sound."’
Ismail joined the Argos amid much fanfare in ’91, spurning the NFL draft to sign a lavish personal-services deal with Bruce McNall, one-third of the club’s celebrated ownership triumvirate that included comedian John Candy and hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky. McCarthy wouldn’t divulge specific details of Ismail’s contract but it was reportedly worth US$4.55-million annually, of which only $100,000 counted towards the CFL’s then $3-million salary cap.
"When they (McNall, Candy and Gretzky) bought the team, they said we had to think big," McCarthy said. "I told them I always thought big, that’s how (Matt) Dunigan got up here (McCarthy sent six players to B.C. for the quarterback prior to ’90 season).
"In January 1991 I’m watching the Orange Bowl with my wife and Ismail returns two kickoffs for touchdowns. The talk is he’s going to leave school early and I say to her, ‘Now, that’s the kind of guy you want. We’ve got the quarterback, we’ve got Pinball and this guy would be the guy. Man, I’d like to have that guy.’ It was one of those things that was in your mind. Then in February, McNall, Gretzky and Candy became the new owners."
And McCarthy wasted little time relaying his interest in Ismail to his new bosses.
"I told Roy Mlakar, who was the VP of operations for the LA Kings, I had an idea that even if didn’t work would still get us a lot of publicity," McCarthy said. "I said Rocket Ismail was probably coming out and to let Bruce know about it and let’s see where we can go with it?
"I got a call back (from Mlakar) later in the day that Bruce really liked the idea and to go ahead and pursue it. Later that night, I’m watching the Kings play Edmonton on Hockey Night in Canada and Bruce is the guest between periods and they start talking about the Argos and he says, ‘Yeah, my general manager and I were talking today and decided to pursue Rocket Ismail, who is projected to be a first-round pick in the NFL.’ My jaw hits the floor. Heck I hadn’t even talked to Rocket or his agent yet and things kind of snowballed from there."
Ismail was the projected first overall pick of the ’91 NFL draft with New England owning the selection before dealing it to Dallas. Unable to reach an agreement with the Cowboys, Ismail stunned the sports world by signing a deal with McNall that was the richest in football at the time.
Ismail joined a talented Argos squad that featured such proven stars as Dunigan, running back/kick-returner Mike (Pinball) Clemons, receivers Paul Masotti and Darrell K. Smith, defensive tackle Rodney Harding and defensive back Carl Brazley. But the high-priced rookie made an immediate impact, returning a kick 73 yards on a reverse with Clemons in his CFL debut and helping the Argos post a league-best 13-5 record.
"When we got up to Toronto, it almost felt like all the ingredients were in place for a successful season," Ismail said on the Argos’ website. "Essentially by John Candy, Bruce McNall and Wayne Gretzky purchasing the team, they brought attention to it and so from the football perspective it was like everything was already in place, the Argonauts were already going to win the Grey Cup, it was just a matter of people knowing about it."
The combination of facing Hamilton, the star appeal of Ismail and the club’s ownership as well as a live post-game show by The Blues Brothers helped make the Argos’ 41-18 home-opening win a sellout. Toronto’s average attendance that year was over 38,000 with more than 50,000 fans watching the club throttle Winnipeg 42-3 in the East Division.
Dunigan suffered a separated shoulder in that game, leaving his status as the top story during Grey Cup week. After throwing passes in the hotel ballroom, the decision was made to have the shoulder frozen to allow Dunigan to play. Dunigan finished just 12-of-29 passing for 142 yards but had two TD strikes and his presence provided inspiration to his teammates.
"The thing was (backup) Rickey Foggie helped us win nine games that year," McCarthy said. "We weren’t going to dress Matt unless he could throw the football.
"But, man, you should’ve seen the size of that bloody needle."
Ismail’s tenure in Toronto was a short one as he left after the ’92 season to sign with the Los Angeles Raiders, spending eight seasons in the NFL before retiring after the ’01 season with Dallas. After Dunigan left to sign with Winnipeg as a free agent, the Argos slumped to 6-12 and missed the playoffs in 1992 and Ismail made headlines for stomping on the head of Calgary fullback Andy McVey during a melee.
"The No. 1 reason the deal was done was to sell tickets," McCarthy said. "I do think it was a very good investment because it made a good football team better and also more and more corporate people became involved and so that money indirectly came back to the club.
"And our attendance was very solid and no one’s come close since."
But Ismail’s departure was also an early indication of things to come. On May 5, 1994 — three years and two months after McNall, Gretzky and Candy bought the CFL club — the Argos were sold to TSN Enterprises. The move came less than two months after Candy’s sudden death at the age of 43.
McCarthy said Candy would’ve loved being involved in the reunion.
"John would’ve been all over this," McCarthy said. "John always had a big heart, the biggest heart on the planet.
"He cared for the guys and was always very emotional, very passionate, about things."