FORT HOOD — Raghib “Rocket” Ismail remembers the 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 Former Notre Dame star and NFL wide receiver gave back to the service men and women on Saturday at the Clear Creek Main Exchange and Warrior Way PX.
The Rocket was there to visit with service men 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. Ismail was the runner up for the Heisman Trophy in 1990.
The event was organized with the WWPX setting up a table with plenty of pens, available Cowboys merchandise available for sale and a line of fans that arrived as early as four hours before Ismail did to get an autograph.
But one of the more touching moments was when Storm Bergin, the wife of a Vietnam War veteran, presented Ismail with one of the 50 stars that was cut off a retired American flag.
Bergin and the Benevolent and Protective Chapter of the Elks of the United States of America have been presenting stars from destroyed flags to veterans, like many who stood in line on Saturday, 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 said the gesture caught him off guard.
“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.”
For Andre Thornton, the 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 all-time Fighting Irish 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.