Imagine this: the biggest star in college football—the most hyped player of his moment, and the presumptive No. 1 pick in the upcoming NFL Draft—assembles a team of lawyers, agents, accountants and marketers, all with the goal of becoming a money-making, sports-transcending pop culture star. This is easy enough to imagine, because it happens all the time. Here is where it gets weird:
To achieve this goal, said player then forgoes the NFL, instead signing a megabucks deal to play professional football in Canada.
It sounds a little crazy. In retrospect, it was a little crazy. But 25 years ago, it actually happened. In 1991, former Notre Dame wide receiver/kick returner Raghib "Rocket" Ismail passed on the NFL to sign a then-record contract worth up to $26 million with the Canadian Football League's Toronto Argonauts.
Even today—when the concept of athlete-as-brand is familiar to the point of cliché—Ismail's unprecedented move remains unconventional. As does the story behind it, which involves a Sports Illustrated writer-turned-career advisor, actor John Candy, and the go-big-or-go-home sports owner who brought Wayne Gretzky to Los Angeles.
"It wouldn't happen today," said Bruce McNall, the then-Argonauts owner. "It was a once in a lifetime shot."
The speedy Ismail was only 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, and his campus statistics weren't overly impressive by today's standards. As a Notre Dame junior, he ran for 537 yards and three touchdowns, caught 32 passes for 699 yards and two touchdowns, and returned a kickoff for another score.
However, numbers fail to capture Ismail's electrifying impact on the 1990-91 season. Thanks to his catchy nickname, game-breaking ability, prominent role on what was then America's most-watched college team, and knack for dramatic plays, Ismail was very much a superstar. He pretty much had been since September 1989, when as a sophomore he returned two kicks for touchdowns to lead Notre Dame to a nationally televised victory over Michigan.
That performance led to a subsequent 4,000-word Sports Illustrated cover story by journalist Ralph Wiley, who grew close to Ismail and his family as the player's profile rose. In December 1990, two days before a much-anticipated Orange Bowl matchup between Notre Dame and top-ranked Colorado, Ismail asked Wiley to advise him about his professional options.
With 1:05 remaining in the Orange Bowl and Notre Dame trailing top-ranked Colorado 10-9, Ismail caught a punt, broke at least three tackles and sprinted up the right sideline for an apparent 91-yard touchdown. The score was nullified when the referees called a clipping penalty on Notre Dame defensive back Greg Davis. Still, Ismail's jaw-dropping run helped him become even more well-known. A few weeks later he turned pro.
Behind Ismail was "Team Rocket"—Wiley's brainchild, a group of professional advisors tasked with maximizing Ismail's earning potential. (Making themselves richer and raising their own profiles wasn't out of the question, either).
Most members of the group were relatively inexperienced in the sports industry and worked in the Bay Area, near where Wiley had distinguished himself as an Oakland Tribune reporter. David Falk, who was Michael Jordan's agent, and veteran sports marketer and agent Jerry Solomon agreed to work with "Team Rocket" on Ismail's marketing opportunities even though they had lost out to inexperienced agents on his football contract. Wiley, who died in 2004, told Sports Illustrated that a company he created would receive $25,000 from Ismail's endorsements, which would be split between two assistants.
"[Wiley] was the one who wanted to avoid the usual suspects who were representing big-time first round draft picks at the time," Brock Godway, a partner at a prominent San Francisco law firm and "Team Rocket" member, told VICE Sports. "He wanted somebody who could represent Rocket not only in the time of the draft but also plan his financial future."
Ismail's handlers envisioned him as more than a football player. More marketable, too. Athletic crossover starts weren't totally unheard of in the early 1990s—former Olympic decathlete Bruce Jenner had done very well in his second life as a pitchman and motivational speaker—but they were more uncommon than they are today.
"You never know if somebody is going to have that kind of crossover appeal and that broad-based appeal," Solomon told VICE Sports. "It's hard to know and hard to anticipate. But [Ismail] went to the right school, he was a big-time football player, he had a great name. He had everything going for him. The fact that he had that nickname of Rocket was very helpful. I think everybody was very bullish that a lot of great things could be done."
Ismail skipped the NFL Draft Combine to compete in an indoor track meet for Notre Dame, during which he ran the world's fastest time in the 55-meter dash for 1991. Perhaps predictably, his absence prompted one unnamed AFC executive to tell USA Today that Ismail was a "prima donna."
Still, the consensus was that Ismail would be the top pick in the draft. Every franchise sought his on-field excellence and off-field appeal. And then, in late February, everything changed. Not in the NFL. In the CFL. Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall, the actor Candy, and hockey legend Gretzky bought the Argonauts for $5 million. They were looking to make a splash.
McNall owned 60 percent of the team and wanted to make the most of his investment, just as he had done when he bought the Kings three years earlier. In August 1988, the Kings acquired Gretzky from the Edmonton Oilers, arguably the biggest trade in NHL history.
When he purchased the Argonauts, McNall thought having two native Canadians and American household names, Gretzky and Candy, as minority owners would help draw attention throughout North America to a league that few Americans cared about, and perhaps attach some sizzle to a team that had trouble selling tickets. But he had bigger ambitions than that—McNall wanted to repeat the success the Kings had enjoyed with Gretzky, and he thought he had a way to do it. The answer: Persuade Ismail to come to the CFL.
McNall remembers Gretzky having some reservations about the high cost of signing Ismail. Candy, who had grown up as an Argonauts fan, had no such qualms. "This franchise meant more to John than it meant to anybody, including myself even," McNall told VICE Sports. "It was a childhood dream come true for him. When I brought up the idea of Rocket, his enthusiasm went through the roof. It just encouraged me even more to make sure I got this deal done if I could."
Some NFL executives believed McNall's announcement that he was pursuing Ismail was simply a publicity stunt, the better to draw attention to the Argonauts. McNall, a coin collector and movie producer, was thrilled with the attention. But he also was persistent in wooing Ismail, meeting with him on several occasions, wining and dining him in Los Angeles and trying to convince him it was okay to buck convention and come to Canada.
The New England Patriots had the top pick in the NFL draft and attempted to negotiate with "Team Rocket." After the sides couldn't agree on contract terms, the Patriots traded the pick to the Dallas Cowboys. Godway said Cowboys owner Jerry Jones called him several times with offers, but Jones couldn't match McNall's offer of a guaranteed $18 million over four years. With bonuses, Ismail could earn up to $26 million, an unprecedented amount. Hours before the draft, Ismail announced he was heading to Canada and playing for the Argonauts.
Before Ismail had even played a down, he had signed the richest deal in professional football history. It was also unusual in its language. Godway worked with transactional and tax lawyers at his firm and structured the deal as a personal services agreement between Ismail and McNall instead of the traditional contract between player and team.
Why the change? Thanks to Godway's work, Ismail could take a relatively small salary that fit the Argonauts' cap, avoid high Canadian taxes, and receive most of the money through marketing obligations on behalf of McNall and his business interests.
"For appearance purposes, [the contract] made it look like as if the principal purpose of the agreement wasn't for him to play football in Canada," said Godway, a trial lawyer and litigator who had worked with sports agents Leigh Steinberg and Jeff Moorad. "That was only one aspect of how McNall wanted to use Rocket's services in terms of publicity and so forth in the United States."
McNall spent so much money because he calculated that Ismail's fame would help him recoup his investment. He envisioned fans coming out in droves to watch Ismail. He believed the receiver could help the Argonauts sign bigger sponsorship and media deals, too. He also thought Ismail's skills were uniquely suited to the CFL's bigger field, which is 10 yards longer and nearly 12 yards wider than the NFL's field. More than that, McNall said he had no reservations about being personally responsible for paying Ismail and guaranteeing the contract. The league's executives and teams didn't mind his creative accounting, either.
"As you well know, if I can get find a way to get around things, I will," said McNall, laughing. "[The CFL] was a Mickey Mouse play. Next to the NHL, which I was used to, all of the other [CFL] owners were so thrilled at the idea of being able to get attention to their teams. Every time Rocket played in their arenas, selling out their arenas, how much difficulty do you think it was? They made a fortune."
Ismail's CFL debut on July 16, 1991 featured actor Jim Belushi flipping the coin and actor Dan Aykroyd and the Blues Brothers performing. The Argonauts won 41-18 in front of 41,178 fans, nearly 10,000 more than they averaged the previous year.
As a rookie, Ismail caught 64 passes for 1,300 yard and nine touchdowns and ran for 271 yards and three touchdowns. The Argonauts finished first in the CFL's Eastern Division and drew 4,200 more fans per home game than they did in 1990. Ismail saved his best moment for the Grey Cup, the CFL's version of the Super Bowl. During the fourth quarter, he returned a kickoff 87 yards for a touchdown to break open a one-point game and help secure the Argonauts' victory. He was named the game's most valuable player.
"It was like something in sports lore that nobody would believe, like a bad movie," McNall said. "But it was absolutely true. Here's a guy that comes and does everything he's supposed to do and then wins the Grey Cup by running back a [kickoff] for a touchdown. It was pretty crazy."
Ismail's impact on Canadian football, though, was fleeting. In 1992, he had only 36 catches for 651 yards and four touchdowns, and gained 154 yards rushing with three touchdowns. The Argonauts finished 6-12 and didn't qualify for the playoffs; attendance at home games fell to levels seen before Ismail arrived; during a game against the Calgary Stampeders, Ismail reportedly took part in a sideline brawl and stomped an opposing player's helmeted face. By then, McNall realized he had overpaid for the receiver, who was shy and reluctant to make marketing appearances. "We just couldn't sustain the excitement is the best way to put it," he said.
After the season, McNall and Ismail severed ties. In August 1993, Ismail signed a two-year deal worth $3 million with the Los Angeles Raiders, the team that selected him in the fourth round of the 1991 draft. He never became a big NFL star or lived up to his college hype, but he had a solid career, totaling 363 receptions for 5,295 yards and 28 touchdowns over nine seasons.
Meanwhile, McNall sold the Argonauts in May 1994 amidst legal and financial troubles of his own making. That December, McNall pleaded guilty to defrauding six banks of more than $236 million. He was sentenced to 70 months in prison and told to repay his victims $5 million.
McNall said he hasn't spoken with Ismail since he left for the NFL. Still, McNall has no hard feelings towards a player who briefly made the CFL relevant to an American audience. The two men will forever be tied to a bold, almost unfathomable deal that most likely will never be duplicated.
"Canadians up there are more conservative people," McNall said. "They're not likely to try to do something crazy like that. But I was a little nuts and wanted to make a splash for the team and see what we could do.
"Most people, when I speak to them, they rank the Gretzky trade and the sale of Babe Ruth as the biggest deals in the history of sports. I think Rocket would probably be in the top rung up there as well. It was shocking, something that couldn't be done again, probably."