How Rocket Ismail made the grade before football took off for the former Notre Dame star

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Living in Texas and following around a son who plays wide receiver at the University of Wyoming makes it more than a bit challenging for Rocket Ismail to keep up with Notre Dame football these days.

Case in point, Notre Dame’s 23-17 loss at Georgia last Saturday night. The former Irish All-American and Heisman Trophy runner-up was in a moving car at the time, and the only connection he could get to the top 10 showdown was what he characterized as a “Georgia Bulldogs fan radio station.”

“I’m having to balance them trying to put all these voodoo hexes on us,” Ismail said earlier this week on ND Insider’s Pod of Gold podcast. “It was kind of frustrating. You have to have a good imagination.”

No word on the former receiver/running back/return man’s game plan to soak in Saturday’s home matchup between the 10th-ranked Irish (2-1) and No. 18 Virginia (4-0). Broadcast time on NBC is 3:30 p.m. EDT. Raghib Ismail Jr.’s Wyoming team hosts UNLV later that night in Laramie.

The younger Rocket is a 6-foot, 170-pound senior and the Cowboys’ second-leader receiver (four catches for 85 yards; two rushes for 13 yards and a TD). He started his career at TCU near the Ismails’ home in Irving, Texas, and then transferred to Cisco Community College before landing at Wyoming.

The elder Ismail, who turns 50 in November, doesn’t need much of an imagination, though, to verbalize how Notre Dame — on and off the field — and education in general has impacted his life.

That’s why he became part of the “It Only Takes One” video series in the College Football Playoff Foundation’s Extra Yard for Teachers initiative. The mission is dedicated to elevating the teaching profession by inspiring and empowering teachers in four focus areas: resources, recognition, recruitment and professional development.

For Ismail, the most significant individuals have actually been guidance counselors — Sister Kathleen (Gilbert) at Notre Dame, and Mr. (Enzo) Frosini at Meyers Junior/Senior High School in Wilkes Barre, Pa.

Sister Kathleen is the person Ismail said is most responsible for him getting his Notre Dame degree. In 1991, he became the first true junior from the Notre Dame football program to go pro early.

The first two seasons of his 11-season pro career unfolded in Canada, as he opted for a big-money Canadian Football League contract ahead of the NFL Draft, and in Toronto is where Sister Kathleen tracked Ismail down by getting Ismail’s mom to give her his number.

He laughs constantly as he tells the story, using a falsetto voice to impersonate Sister Kathleen.

“I said, ‘Are you in town? Are you coming to a game or something?’” Ismail related.

“And she’s like, ‘Oh no. It’s time to make your class schedule for the spring semester.’

I’m like, ‘My class schedule for the spring semester? What are you talking about?’

“She had it broken down where if I took ‘x’ amount of credits for the next three semesters, then I’d be able to graduate. She’s like, ‘We promised your mother you’d graduate.’

“And I was like, ‘Ooookay, well yeah.’ So Sister Kathleen was the impetus behind me keeping my promise to my mother.”

“And I’m so thankful that I did, because it was one of the proudest moments of my life. … It’s really important to have people in your life along the way — especially when you’re young — to help guide you and help you see beyond the moment.”

Without Mr. Frosini, there never would have been Sister Kathleen or Notre Dame. After Ismail’s father died, he and his brothers went to live with their 77-year-old grandmother in Wilkes Barre, Pa.

Rocket and the oldest of his younger brothers, Qadry, soon got called into Mr. Frosini’s office when the two had fallen into mediocrity academically.

“I’d never heard of somebody getting called to the guidance counselor’s office,” Ismail said. “We might get called to the principal. But the guidance counselor? What the heck kind of a new world is this? And we get to the guidance counselor’s office, and there is Mr. Frosini.

“He had these big, thick glasses that looked like the ones Mr. Magoo wore. He had a full head of hair, and it was all white. And his skin was even whiter than his hair. And he was sitting there and he essentially said, ‘Hey I’m looking at your grades here, and this isn’t acceptable.’

“It was crazy, because he wasn’t belittling us. He cared about us. He had a game plan of how we were not ever going to have to come to his office for grade problems or issues again. In no way were we stars. In fact, if you saw us, no one would believe we would play football, because we were so puny.”

But the Ismails burgeoned in the classroom and on the football field.

“I love him to this day,” Ismail said. “Anytime you get a chance to celebrate people who have had a significant part in your life — even if you didn’t know what they were doing at the time was significant — I’m down for it.”

The father of four fills his days doing speaking engagements and appearances and working with the NFL Legends Community.

“It celebrates, reconnects and educates former players after they retire from the game to help them transition to the civilian life, if you will,” Ismail said. “The most important thing I do is learn how to be a better husband and a better father every day.”

And when time and circumstance permits, he keeps up with his beloved Irish football team.

“I think the program is in good hands with (coach) Brian Kelly,” he said. “To me the thing I like about guys who are in positions of authority is their ability to be flexible and to be honest with themselves and to make changes.

“And I feel like his evolution as a man, he understands he’s in a position that is very important in the landscape of college football and not just being content with whatever his résumé was coming in. ‘Hey this is my style take it or leave it.’

“But always looking to evolve, always looking to improve and taking actual steps to do that. Man my hat’s off to him.”

Rocket Ismail created a lot of memories during his years at Notre Dame, including some very important ones in the classroom.