FORT HOOD — Raghib “Rocket” Ismail was shocked to discover how human a soldier truly is.
“You know that those guys are brave and courageous, but I always looked at (soldiers) like Captain America or Iron Man — they seemed so super human,” said the 1990 Heisman Trophy runner-up, who has traveled to Iraq and Kuwait to meet soldiers. “When I met them and saw how hard they have it; how much they sacrifice to serve our country while still trying to keep everything good at home — it really opened my eyes to how great they really are.”
Ismail, the former Notre Dame and Dallas Cowboy receiver, was at the Exchange on Clear Creek on Saturday to sign photographs and memorabilia for not only Irish and Cowboys fans, but to anyone who asked.
“They invited me and it worked for my children’s schedules, and if everything is smooth at home, then it’s cool,” Ismail said. “I feel like if I can make a connection with these people because of something I did on the field, then I should do it. If I can write my name or take a picture with them and for that moment they can remember all the good stuff.”
Ismail picked up a phone call from a daughter of an avid Irish fan in order to surprise her father. He chatted for a few minutes and upon hanging up was told by the daughter that her father had cancer. Ismail wrote his email and phone on a sheet of paper and told her when her father visits the Killeen area to call him and he’d meet the man in person.
That is all in a day’s work for the devoutly religious former All-American. Ismail still lives in Dallas, despite being released by the Cowboys in 2002, and travels to military establishments across the state of Texas to visit with soldiers. He also spends time speaking to at-risk youths and making appearances and speeches at other engagements.
But that, he says, is what he does with only 10 percent of his time. The other 90 he spends trying to make sure his children are prepared for life.
“I have four children — two boys and two girls,” Ismail said. “I’m trying to help them grow up to be productive citizens.”
If there’s one thing Ismail knows it’s how to be productive. His career at Notre Dame was so noteworthy that in 2004 College Football News named Ismail the 75th player on its list of the Top 100 Greatest College Football Players of All-Time.
“Think about how many guys have played so a statement like that is mind-blowing,” he said. “But I’m thankful and I appreciate it. I’m very aware of the rarity that being considered in that light — out of all those people — you’re ranked.”
Ismail thought he was going to redshirt his freshman year and have time to adjust to the college life. He was wrong.
“I was thrust into the mouth of the beast and the next thing you know — national championship,” he said. “College started off as fun, but I underestimated the magnitude that Notre Dame had and I wasn’t equipped to deal with the attention.”
The spotlight shone on Ismail early in his sophomore season. He returned two kickoffs for touchdowns against Michigan – the first to ever do so — and that’s when Sports Illustrated made a big deal of the young star.
He compares his 1988 national champion team to the current squad and doesn’t see too many differences. He described both teams as having big-play capabilities in the skill positions and stout defenses: “The quarterback is younger than ours was, but he has grown up so much this year as a player.”