Notre Dame-Syracuse matchup conjures memories of 'Rocket' and 'The Missile'

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Raghib “Rocket” Ismail (L) hugs his brother, Qadry, after an NFL game. The brothers’ two schools, Notre Dame and Syracuse, play each other on Saturday. (AP)
Raghib “Rocket” Ismail (L) hugs his brother, Qadry, after an NFL game. The brothers’ two schools, Notre Dame and Syracuse, play each other on Saturday. (AP)

NEW YORK – The Northeast is awash with college football nostalgia this week, as the country’s marquee game between No. 12 Syracuse and No. 3 Notre Dame at Yankee Stadium harkens back a generation.

Notre Dame is undefeated (10-0), in the thick of the College Football Playoff chase and aiming for the program’s first national championship since 1988. Syracuse is at its highest Associated Press ranking in two decades, with coach Dino Babers showing signs of reviving the 1990s when Syracuse resonated nationally as a chic program.

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The two programs didn’t play each other during that gilded era, as they took a four-decade break between 1963 and 2003. But the tenures of Lou Holtz and Dick MacPherson/Paul Pasqualoni are connected by a pair of brothers – Notre Dame’s Raghib “Rocket” Ismail and Syracuse’s Qadry “The Missile” Ismail – that are emblematic of glory days for those programs.

Rocket Ismail burst onto the scene for Notre Dame’s 1988 national title team as a true freshman, finished second in Heisman Trophy voting in 1990 and helped lead Notre Dame to a 33-4 record during his three seasons. Qadry Ismail’s time at Syracuse included All-American honors in both football and track, the first dual-sport All-American at the school since Jim Brown in the 1950s. Back then, Syracuse regularly beat the biggest names in the sport, as Qadry’s time included victories over Florida (1991), Texas (1992) and West Virginia (1992) in the regular season and bowl victories over both Georgia (1989), Ohio State (1991) and Colorado (1992). “That Ismail name,” said Aaron Taylor, a teammate to Rocket at Notre Dame and Qadry in Green Bay in the NFL, “equated to speed and electrifying and dynamic playmaking.”

Both players reverberated as fixtures in that era at their schools, injecting their respective programs with dynamism, indelible nicknames and All-American seasons. They had a third brother, Sulaiman, who was known as “The Bomb” and ended up walking on at UTEP. Even their mother, Fatma, was lovingly dubbed “The Launching Pad.”

Raghib “Rocket” Ismail helped Notre Dame win a national title in 1988 and almost won a Heisman in 1990. (Getty)
Raghib “Rocket” Ismail helped Notre Dame win a national title in 1988 and almost won a Heisman in 1990. (Getty)

In a phone interview this week, Qadry Ismail chuckled as he promised to be live-tweeting some gentle trash talk at his brother during the game. “Dino,” he pleaded to the Syracuse coach. “Oh please, oh please can we beat the hell out of this doggone Fighting Irish team?” Raghib stayed in character with the player who famously got wheeled out of the locker room in a laundry cart at Notre Dame to avoid interviews. He politely declined comment, still preferring to be hidden.

Where are the Rocket and The Missile? They’ve landed softly after long professional careers. Rocket does motivational speaking and mentorship in the Dallas area, and Qadry does television work in the Baltimore area and trains a variety of athletes at The Sports Factory in Bel Air, Maryland. Rocket started his pro career in the CFL after a blockbuster contract offer from Toronto and played nine NFL seasons, which included a pair of 1,000-yard receiving years in Carolina (1998) and Dallas (1999). Qadry was a second-round pick by Minnesota who played 10 years in the league and arguably had a better professional career than his brother.

It will make college football fans of a certain age feel a pinch old to know that Raghib Ismail Jr. is a wide receiver at University of Wyoming, the Cowboys’ second-leading receiver. Qadry’s three kids all ended up college athletes. (He was married to Holly Oslander, who played basketball at Syracuse.) Daughter Qalea is a senior basketball player at Princeton, son Qadry is a sophomore wide receiver at Mercyhurst and son Qadir is a freshman quarterback at Villanova. (The third Ismail brother, Sulaiman, is doing sports-performance training and works in construction in the Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, area where the brothers grew up.)

For Raghib’s and Qadry’s college careers, the legacies transcended the quirky nicknames. It’s difficult to quantify all that Rocket meant to Notre Dame, from a Sports Illustrated cover to the unforgettable moments like returning a pair of kickoffs for touchdowns against Michigan in the second half of an iconic game in Ann Arbor. Taylor recalled being a pinch in awe of Rocket on his own recruiting trip there, and laughs at the memory of a “guy who talked as fast as he ran.”

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick groups the late 1980s at Notre Dame – with Tim Brown winning the 1987 Heisman and Ismail bursting onto the scene a year later – as a paradigm shift of eras for Notre Dame football.

“It’s hard to separate [Raghib] and Tim Brown in some ways,” Swarbrick said in a phone interview this week. “Both guys, and perhaps he in particular, they redefined who we were a little bit and the perceptions of us with hulking offensive linemen and tight ends and quarterbacks throwing to prescribed plays. They were different, and that had a lasting impact on the perception of the school.”

Qadry Ismail was a standout receiver and kick returner for Syracuse in the early ’90s. (Photo credit: Syracuse Athletics)
Qadry Ismail was a standout receiver and kick returner for Syracuse in the early ’90s. (Photo credit: Syracuse Athletics)

Qadry chose Syracuse in part to remove himself from his older brother’s shadow. At Meyers High School in Wilkes-Barre, Qadry blocked for his brother as a fullback and earned the nickname GQ – Gentleman Qadry. At Syracuse, he redshirted as his brother took off in South Bend and worked himself into a high-end receiver and kick returner who averaged 18.7 yards per catch as a junior and scored 12 career touchdowns. Former Syracuse offensive coordinator George DeLeone recalled Qadry dropping a curl route against USC in the 1990 Kickoff Classic as a redshirt sophomore that hit him straight in the facemask.

“He was a self-made player,” DeLeone said in a phone interview this week. “As big as he was and as fast as he was, he had to learn to catch the ball at wide receiver.”

That evolution happened under wide receiver coach Dennis Goldman, who recalled Qadry striking fear in secondaries later in his career. “If he caught the ball, it was like a panic among the defensive backs about who was going to tackle the guy,” Goldman said. “He was so big and strong.”

He played at a time when an abundance of talent overflowed at Syracuse, as his skill position teammates included NFL draft picks Daryl Johnston, Rob Moore, Rob Carpenter and Marvin Harrison.

“That’s one of the reasons we were so good,” DeLeone said. “Players wanted to come play with known stars like Qadry. Quarterbacks wanted to come throw him the ball. He brought us name recognition that helped lay the foundation for our program.”

Rocket and Qadry recently returned to Meyers High School, where they starred in the late 1980s, for the final installment of the school’s rivalry before a consolidation. Hayden White, a former football assistant who still coaches track at Meyers, said current students weren’t born when the brothers starred, but they know the stories. White recalls campus recruiting visits from Joe Paterno, Lou Holtz and a slew of coaches like then-Syracuse aide Randy Edsall. Rocket took his first two touches in freshman football for 70-plus-yard touchdowns, and from there he didn’t stop running. Qadry bloomed later, and both are still revered back where they first blossomed.

“They were probably two of the greatest athletes to ever come out of this area,” White said. “They’re still legendary to this day.”

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