Dr. Saturday

Catching up with Raghib Ismail: Notre Dame’s ‘Rocket’ hopes to score with latest football investment

Jim Weber
Dr. Saturday

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Jim Weber runs Lost Lettermen, a site devoted to keeping tabs on former college athletes and other nostalgia. Recently, he tracked down former Notre Dame receiver/return man Raghib "Rocket" Ismail, about his work with an equipment company.

Raghib Ismail saying a business venture is about to take off is like Brett Favre promising he's retired for good: Both statements should be met with plenty of skepticism.

After all, the "Rocket" has squandered his money in several doomed business ventures, including a cosmetics procedure to allow the skin to absorb oxygen, nationwide phone card dispensers and tourist shops that sold framed calligraphy.

But it seems that after a string of business failures, the Notre Dame legend might have finally struck gold in an unlikely place: Mouthguards.

Ismail first discovered the "performance mouthwear" company Bite Tech in the mid-'90s, while playing for the then-Los Angeles Raiders. He used the company's mouthguards to try to reduce head injuries because of the way they absorbed force. He thought they worked so well, in fact, that he later decided to invest a large amount of money in the company (though he declined to disclose the exact amount). Unlike many of his other business ventures, though, Bite Tech is gaining users and positive publicity. It partnered with Under Armour in 2009 and was named earlier this year to Fast Company's list of the 10 most innovative companies in sports.

The premise of its "performance mouthwear" is that it not only absorbs more force and allows the body to intake more air than a regular mouthguard, but also keeps the jaw in its natural, relaxed position, which the company claims enhances the bodies' performance both mentally and physically. While this is currently being debated in the medical community (the Compendium of Continuing Education in Dentistry published a supplement on athletic mouthguards, including Bite Tech, in its July/August 2009 edition), it has certainly won over plenty of big-name athletes. Testimonials on the company's website include former Oklahoma star Adrian Peterson (who is also an investor), Olympic gold medalist skier Lindsey Vonn, Major League Baseball slugger David Ortiz and PGA golfer Hunter Mahan. Auburn's national championship team also used the mouthguards last season.

"The human body, when it has what it needs, you don't have to take these illegal things," said Ismail, who also believes the device has potential in tasks such as taking tests because it can help increase focus. "…If you train in the right position, the things your body can do are staggering."{YSP:MORE}

[Related: Media's premature fawning over 2011 Irish]

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Now living in Irving, Texas, Ismail rattles off the benefits of Bite Tech like a true salesman, his mouth displaying the same quickness he once showed on the football field. His high school track coach nicknamed him "Rocket" for the way he bolted out of the starting blocks. The name was a fitting one. Ismail allegedly ran the 40-yard dash in 4.2 seconds, a tall claim the tacklers he left in his wake at Notre Dame might find difficult to refute.

In South Bend, Rocket was one of the most electrifying players in college football history as a wide receiver and kick returner, helping the Fighting Irish to the 1988 national championship, returning two kickoffs for touchdowns against Michigan in 1989 and finishing as the runner-up for the 1990 Heisman Trophy. His 91-yard punt return with under a minute left in the '91 Orange Bowl would have gone down as one of the greatest plays in college football history, if not for a controversial clipping call that gift-wrapped a co-national title for Colorado.

[Related: Former NFL star now professional cattle wrangler]

Ismail bypassed the 1991 NFL draft, in which he likely would have been the top overall pick, in favor of an $18 million contract with the CFL's Toronto Argonauts. But with the team in financial trouble and Ismail tired of the pressure to be the league's savior, he returned stateside two years later.

He played in the NFL until 2001, but only went over 1,000 yards receiving in a season twice and never made a Pro Bowl with the Raiders, Carolina Panthers or Dallas Cowboys. But he makes no apologies for a career in which he still went over 5,200 career receiving yards and says he often found himself in bad situations with the teams he played for.

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These days, with boundless energy and a personality the size of Texas, it's easy to see how Ismail fits in spending time with his wife, Melani (who recently starred on the VH1 show "Football Wives"), and four children, going to dental conferences to spread the word about Bite Tech, being a public speaker and doing publicity events for the Cowboys. He's also recently served as an announcer for bull-riding telecasts and head coach of a Slamball team.

But don't be surprised if Ismail's next endeavor is priesthood. With his devout faith — he converted from Islam to Christianity in his early teens — and charisma, people are always trying to talk him into it. Plenty of former football players have gone into ministry, such as Washington's Napoleon Kaufman, Wisconsin's Terrell Fletcher and Nebraska's Irving Fryar.

[Related: Once-troubled Irving Fryar now New Jersey pastor]

"I've always had that strong sense that, yeah, I can minister and things of that nature, but if I'm doing it outside of my house and I'm not doing it inside of my house, then I'm living a fraudulent life," Ismail said.

Now a decade removed from his last NFL game, Ismail is asked where he sees himself in another 10 years. He first mentions his family and spiritual obligations, then turns to the big plans he has for Bite Tech.

"Lord willing that thing will have revolutionized the world, not just the sports world. … The other applications that can come from the technology will take hold and the world will be a better place because of it."

Don't ever say Rocket Ismail doesn't aim high.

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- - -Jim Weber is the founder of LostLettermen.com, a historical college football and men's basketball site that links the sport's past to the present..

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