It was a mid-September showdown in 1989 between the top two teams in the country.
No. 1 ranked Notre Dame headed to the Big House to take on Michigan.
Not only did the game have meaning on the national level, it was a game that attracted the attention of local football fans in the Wyoming Valley with Meyers graduate Raghib “Rocket” Ismail playing for Notre Dame, and GAR’s Greg Skrepenak playing on the offensive line for Michigan.
Ismail, one of the most electrifying players in all of college football, stole the show. He returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in the second half to lead Notre Dame to the 24-19 victory.
To say that Ismail was ahead of his time would be an understatement. He played college football in a time where the game was geared more toward strength and power than speed. But for what Ismail lacked in stature, he made up for with quickness and athleticism.
On Monday it was announced that Ismail was selected to the College Football Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2019. He will be officially inducted at a ceremony in New York City on Dec. 10. Ismail was one of the 13 players to be named in the class. Florida State defensive back Terrell Buckley, USC defensive back Troy Polamalu and Texas quarterback Vince Young are also part of the class that also includes former University of Miami head coach Dennis Erickson.
Ismail was unavailable for comment, but those who coached him and played against him recalled his career.
“It is long overdue,” said Meyers athletic director Mike Namey, who was an assistant coach at Meyers while Ismail was a running back with the Mohawks. “He was one of those first type of athletes to come out of high school that never fit the specifications for a college athlete. He was undersized and small in weight, yet nobody saw the true benefits of what this young man can don the field.
“It’s beyond well deserved. Any young man that can make a run on the collegiate level as he did, and make a run at the Heisman Trophy says a lot more about the persona of the person. The athleticism speaks for itself.”
It was Ismail’s athleticism that kept fans on the edge of their seats whenever he was back to return a punt or kick.
The potential was always there for a long return that could result in a touchdown.
Just like in the 1991 Orange Bowl when Notre Dame was playing top-ranked Colorado. With less than a minute left in the game, Colorado punted to Ismail and he returned it nearly 90 yards for what appeared to be the game-winning touchdown. However, a flag was thrown during the return and the touchdown was taken off the board as because of a clipping penalty.
“We played the early game in the Gator Bowl when they were playing Colorado,” Skrepenak said. “We were watching the game and were wondering why they kicked to him. Even though there was a penalty, we just kept saying to one another “Why are you kicking to him”. Then boom, there he goes. That is just kind of the player he was. You just never knew.”
The year before, Michigan fell victim twice to Ismail’s explosiveness.
“It was the first year I started at Michigan and he single-handily beat us,” Skrepenak said. “After the game (Michigan coach) Bo (Schembechler) said afterward that we aren’t the type of team to back down from anybody. But he admitted we probably shouldn’t have kicked to him again. Everyone knew the case with Rocket. He was not the biggest guy in the world, but he was exciting and as dangerous a college football player anybody has ever seen.”
In an interview with The Citizens’ Voice in October prior to the final football game between Meyers and GAR, Ismail recalled a visit from Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz while he was recruiting Ismail. Rocket Ismail was around 5-foot-8, 150 pounds but listed much bigger in the team’s program. Rocket’s brother Qadry was listed at 5-foot-10, 175 pounds.
“Coach Holtz looked at me and said I must be Qadry,” Ismail said in October. “I could see a small flicker of disappointment in his eye. I thought I lost my scholarship opportunity.”
But it was his speed and athleticism that separated him from the rest. Ismail could lineup anywhere on the field, whether it be in the backfield or at receiver. In some situations, Holtz had him lineup on the edge on field goal and extra point attempts. He was capable of making that much of a difference on the field, regardless of the phase of the game.
“There was no doubt it was a bigger emphasis on running the ball, not only in college but in the NFL,” Skrepenak said. “He wasn’t the norm as he would be today. Today the game is geared toward faster and quicker players as opposed to power. He was certainly way ahead of his time when he played.”
In 1990, Ismail received the Walter Camp Award, an honor given to college football’s player of the year as voted on by major college football coaches and sports information directors. However, that same year, he finished second to Brigham Young quarterback Ty Detmer in the Heisman Trophy voting.
Regardless, Ismail was a two-time First Team All American while playing for Notre Dame and helped the Fighting Irish win the 1988 national championship.
“Arguably he was the most exciting offensive college football player,” Skrepenak said. “We should have won the game in 1989. Without him we win the game. It is not very often you not one, but two kickoffs returned for a touchdown in one game. You just don’t see it.”
From Skrepenak’s perspective, it is hard to understand why it took so long for Ismail to be inducted.
“The only mystery is why he did not get inducted sooner,” Skrepenak said. “What is curious to me is that how he was not in on the first ballot. I’m telling you, even though he didn’t win the Heisman, he did win the Walter Camp. I would put Rocket in college up against anybody. I guarantee you nobody surpasses what he did. There was nobody more exciting than when he had the ball.”
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Raghib “Rocket” Ismail information:
Born: Nov. 18, 1969 in Elizabeth, New Jersey
Family: Son of the late Ibrahim and Fatma Ismail. Brothers Qadry and Sulaiman Ismail.
High school highlights
Had a breakout sophomore year in 1985 for legendary coach Mickey Gorham at Meyers High School, in which he racked up more than 300 return yards, 475 receiving yards and 700 rushing yards with 13 touchdowns. … Ismail was a conference MVP as a junior. He led the conference in rushing yards (1,434) and points scored (175). … Senior year, Ismail rushed for 2,210 yards and 35 touchdowns and was named to PARADE’s All-America team. … As a senior, Ismail was also named Male Athlete of the Year by the Pennsylvania Track and Field Coaches’ Association. He and brother Qadry won a combined six goal medals at the 1988 PIAA championships.
Notre Dame highlights
Two-time first-team All-American. … Consensus A-A in 1989 and unanimous choice in 1990 … Walter Camp Player of the Year and Heisman Trophy runner-up in 1990. … Against Michigan in 1989, he returned two kickoffs for touchdowns. … Helped ND win national championship at Fiesta Bowl … Was MVP of the 1990 Orange Bowl after rushing 16 times for 108 yards and a TD in ND’s 21-6 over Colorado. .. He appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1989 and 1991. … In three seasons at ND, had 131 carries for 1,015 yards and five touchdowns and caught 71 passes for 1,565 yards and four touchdowns. … Averaged 27.6 yards on 46 career kick returns and scored five touchdowns. … Averaged 13.4 yards per punt return and scored a TD. … Member of the Orange Bowl Hall of Fame.
The projected first pick in the 1991 NFL, Ismail opted to sign a record four-year $18.2 million contract with Toronto of the CFL … The LA Raiders chose Ismail in the fourth round to secure his rights. …Was CFL all-star in 1991. … He was MVP of the 79th Grey Cup after returning a kick 87 yards for a TD in the Argonauts’ 36-21 win over Calgary. … In 1993, as an NFL rookie, Ismail had 353 receiving yards. … In 1994, he had 513 yards and five touchdowns. … He was traded to Carolina in 1996. … In 1998, had 69 catches for 1,024 yards and eight touchdowns. … Signed with the Dallas Cowboys as a free agent in 1999 and finished with 1,097 yards and six touchdowns. … Finished his NFL career with 363 catches for 5,295 yards and 30 touchdowns.
Members of the College Football Hall of Fame with ties to Luzerne County:
• Ron Beagle: End from Cincinnati attended Wyoming Seminary before playing at Navy
• Jack Harding: Avoca native coached at the University of Miami
•Raghib “Rocket” Ismail: Meyers grad attended Notre Dame
•Lou Michaels: Swoyersville tackle attended Kentucky
•Frank Sheptock: Current Berwick coach and former Wilkes coach was All-American linebacker at Bloomsburg
•Joe Skladany: Larksville end attending Pittsburgh
•Charley Trippi: Halfback from Pittston went to Georgia
•George Wilson: Philadelphia native attended Wyoming Seminary before his career at Lafayette
•Joe Donchess: Ohio native attended Wyoming Seminary and played end at Pitt
• George Welsh: Wyoming Seminary grad coached 28 years at Navy and Virginia