By Ross Forman
Raghib “Rocket” Ismail was a junior in high school when Louis Lipps was making an appearance one day in downtown Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Ismail was a die-hard Pittsburgh Steelers fan, and Lipps at the time was “the man,” Ismail said.
Lipps, a wide receiver/return specialist, played nine seasons in the NFL, including eight for the Steelers. Lipps was a first-round draft pick in 1984 who went on to a two-time All-Pro career that included two appearances in the annual Pro Bowl. Lipps was the Steelers’ Team MVP in 1989, and he ended his NFL career in 1992 (with New Orleans).
Lipps was the first pro athlete Ismail ever got to meet.
“I remember getting an autograph from him,” Ismail said after the Fanatics Authentic Sports Spectacular, held in Rosemont, Ill., last spring.
“I still remember how bad I wanted to tell Lipps that my name is Rocket and that I’m pretty good … but then I got cold feet; I got too nervous.”
And what about that Lipps autograph?
Flash-forward a few years. This time, in New York City. Ismail was a junior at the University of Notre Dame, a finalist for the 1990 Heisman Trophy, which ultimately was awarded to Ty Detmer of BYU. Ismail was doing a TV interview near the Downtown Athletic Club – and Terry Bradshaw was there.
Ismail again got nervous.
“I couldn’t believe that I was seeing this guy, Bradshaw, who I long pretended that I was when I was younger. That was overwhelming. I didn’t even think to ask for his autograph,” Ismail said.
Ismail has met many of other famed Pittsburgh Steelers from years past, such as Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Mel Blount, Donnie Shell, Jack Ham and others. “My mind just didn’t think about getting any of their autographs,” Ismail said. “Just to be in their presence was really great, a real blessing.”
There is, though, one former Steelers star who Ismail would, if he could, like to get autograph of: Mike Webster.
“Iron Mike,” as he was known, played in the NFL from 1974-1990 with Pittsburgh and Kansas City, culminating in an induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997. He was a nine-time Pro Bowl selectee, a four-time Super Bowl champion, a member of the NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team and his No. 52 jersey has been retired by the Steelers. Webster died in 2002 at age 50.
“I used to love him. He looked so awesome, with his big guns (biceps). That’s somebody whose autograph I would like,” Ismail said of Webster.
Ismail, now 45, is, arguably, best remembered for his Saturday heroics, some 25 years ago in South Bend, Ind.
In 2004, College Football News named Ismail the No. 75 player on its list of the Top 100 Greatest College Football Players of All-Time. He also was selected by Sports Illustrated to the 85-man roster of its All-20th Century College Football Team.
He turned pro in 1991 with the Toronto Argonauts. He was a Canadian Football League (CFL) All-Star in 1991 and Most Valuable Player of the 79th Grey Cup.
He went to the NFL in 1993 with the Raiders. His career also included time with Carolina and Dallas. Ismail had 363 receptions in his NFL career for 5,295 yards and 30 touchdowns.
Ismail remains a popular, sought-after autograph-signer – and he doesn’t mind.
It’s no big deal when asked to sign, Ismail said, “because I remember the thrill that I got when I was younger and got autographs. So, if I can replicate that feeling in anyone else’s life, in any way, shoot, count me in.”
Ismail even admits that, as early as age 8 or 9, he would practice signing his autograph with his brothers.
“We’d get sheets of paper and say, ‘Let’s practice our autographs,’ ” he said, laughing. “My autograph evolved over the years. In fact, even today there was something that I did further changing my autograph. It’s something that most people would never notice, but I know what I changed.”
Ismail’s paper trail in the card world dates back decades. In 1991, there were Ismail cards from such makers as Pro Set, Wild Card, All World, Classic and others. He has appeared on cards from many others makers, too.
“Some of my cards were really cool action shots and seemed like the card company) spent time to pick the best photo. Some of the cards look like the photographer just had to take pictures quickly of everyone on his list, so maybe I was yawning, leaning back on a bench or something like that – and they just used whatever they had,” Ismail said.
Ismail noted a Carolina card, from a game against San Francisco on the road, as one of his favorites. “I just like the action photo,” he said. Ismail also praised a card showing a picture from when he was playing for Dallas, in a home game against Arizona in old Texas Stadium. It was another great action photo, he said.
“Those two cards, I really like,” he said.
Ismail said he saved limited memorabilia from his career, though his mom had a lot of his game-used memorabilia.
“I have my stuff from Dallas, such as my old cleats. I also have my Dallas and Carolina helmets, and some game-worn jerseys,” he said.
Ismail has been married for 19 years and has four children. He spends 90 percent of his time these days as a husband and father. His extra time is spent doing speaking engagements and appearances, such as the Fanatics Authentic Sports Spectacular that featured “A Salute To Notre Dame” – autograph appearances by about 25 former Notre Dame standouts, from Joe Montana to Ross Browner.
“The thing I like the best about appearing at card shows is, seeing all of the guys; that’s the coolest part, the blessing of these shows,” Ismail said. “Meeting guys like Daryle LaMonica and Johnny Lattner was great. I hadn’t seen Ross Browner in years, and I got to see him again. I also got to see Coach (Lou) Holtz, (Chris) Zorich, (Mike) Stonebreaker, Tony Rice, Reggie Brooks, Bobby Taylor, and others.
“Joe Montana … he’s an icon in the memorabilia world.”
Ismail also praised the stories that he hears at shows – from collectors.
“I might not always remember things that happen, probably because things were like a blur years back when they were happening. But when I talk to people and they bring up occasions, or games, that happened, oh, 20 or 25 years ago, then it hits me, they jar my memory. That’s really cool for me,” he said. “It’s really cool to see people’s reactions when they meet me.”
Ismail, for instance, has been told that people have named their dog, Rocket, after him. Or, people wear No. 25 after him.
“Hearing things like that really make me appreciative of the God-given gift that I have. It’s amazing to hear the impact I may have had on people, and not even known.”
Ross Forman is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at Rossco814@aol.com.