In his nine seasons in the National Football League and time playing for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team, Raghib “Rocket” Ismail surprised football fans with his breakaway speed and touchdown saving catches.
But on Saturday, Ismail was the one caught off guard by a fan.
During a meet-and-greet at the Warrior Way Specialty Store, Storm Bergin presented the former star with a star from a retired American flag during his autograph session.
“When she put it in the context of being able to bring joy and mental relief, it really humbled me because I didn’t expect that,” Ismail said. “It choked me up a little bit.”
Bergin, the wife of a Vietnam War veteran, and the Benevolent and Protective Chapter of the Elks of the United States of America have been presenting stars from destroyed flags to veterans as a way to say thank you.
“He’s here. Granted he’s not serving our country like our soldiers are, but he’s raising the morale of those who are serving, so he deserves us to say thank you to him, too,” Bergin said.
Ismail remembers his days at Notre Dame fondly. The star wide receiver was in his 20s, playing at one of the NCAA’s finest football schools and fame was waiting for him in a few short years in the Canadian Football League and NFL.
But things fell into perspective when the Fighting Irish played against a service academy school during Ismail’s years in South Bend, a tradition Notre Dame continues today.
“I’m looking forward to playing professional athletics after my college career and I’m playing against service men who are my age,” Ismail said. “These guys are getting ready to go into combat. When I realized the sacrifices that entails, it’s an honor to compete with them and support them at the same time.”
The Rocket was there to visit with servicemen and women, meet fans and sign autographs.
Fort Hood was the third military installation in the Lone Star State that Ismail has visited this year. He’s been visiting military posts in Texas for about four years.
“Whenever we can bring any type of morale-boosting elements to a service man or woman then we do that,” Ismail said. “It just so happens that I played for the Dallas Cowboys, also, so in Texas, it’s a big fit.”
“Rocket” played nine seasons in the NFL with the Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders, Carolina Panthers and Dallas Cowboys.
He was a highly touted player coming out of Notre Dame and the runner up for the Heisman Trophy in 1990.
For Andre Thornton, Saturday’s signing was a dream come true. He’s been a Notre Dame fan for more than 30 years and said that although he doesn’t get nervous often, he was a little nervous about meeting his favorite player.
“He was a game-breaker,” Thornton reminisced about watching Ismail. “He could play tailback, receiver. ... Just put the ball in his hands and he’d score.”
Thornton was wearing a blue Notre Dame jersey with the No. 3 on it and brought along a yellow “Play Like a Champion Today” towel modeled after the sign that hangs in the stairwell between the Irish locker room and the tunnel to the field of Notre Dame Stadium.
He added that as a high school junior in 1991, he changed positions on the Butler Traditional High School (Louisville, Ky.) football team from running back to wide receiver because he looked up to Ismail.