For the briefest of moments in the 1991 Orange Bowl, Notre Dame star Raghib “Rocket” Ismail had delivered one of the greatest plays in college football history.
With his team — ranked No. 5 in the AP — trailing top-ranked Colorado, 10–9, and just over a minute remaining, Ismail fielded a Tom Rouen punt inside his own 10-yard line. True to his nickname-sake, “Rocket” took off, breaking several Buffaloes attempted tackles en route to a magical punt return touchdown.
Only it wasn’t to be. The played was called back due to a clipping call on Notre Dame’s Greg Davis. Just like that, a play for the ages was relegated to a footnote in history.
The footage of Davis’ block has been examined more than the Zapruder film by Notre Dame fans who insist it was a legal block. Twenty-two years later, with the Irish returning to South Florida for a chance at its first national title since 1988, the memory of Rocket’s return that wasn’t still looms large.
“When I do speaking engagements, that’s the topic I’m speaking the most on,” Ismail said recently over the phone from his home in Texas.
This is no insignificant detail. During his collegiate career, Ismail was a two-time Sports Illustrated cover boy. In 1989, he memorably returned two kickoffs for touchdowns at Michigan in a 1-vs.-2 matchup. Upon leaving Notre Dame, Ismail bypassed the NFL — where he was projected to be the top overall draft pick in 1991 — for a record-breaking contract with the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts.
Yet for all those accomplishments, in Ismail’s second career as an inspirational speaker, he finds himself most often talking about a play that didn’t even count. Perhaps it’s because everything in the buildup to that play suggested a dream-like return for a touchdown wasn’t only possible but probable.
“If you had asked me in 1991 going into that game, ‘What happens if you find yourself with 1:06 left in the game down by one point and Colorado is getting ready to punt the ball to you, do you believe you can return that punt for a touchdown or for great field position?’, my first response is ‘absolutely,’ ” Ismail said. “It’s because of all the success Notre Dame has had returning kicks, both before Lou Holtz and me and after. And that was one of the strongest areas of his team, too.”
Indeed, video footage of the play shows Holtz motioning to Ismail — telling him not to fair catch the ball and indicating a middle return formation, according to Ismail — and Ismail responding with a thumbs up that seemed to say, “I got this.”
And until Ismail and his Notre Dame teammates realized that a flag had been thrown on the play, they thought they had it. But in retrospect, the return that wasn’t has shaped Ismail’s life for the better.
“Since then I’ve come to understand that that moment was very valuable for me,” Ismail said in a video interview with Notre Dame athletics in December. “In your life there’s going to be adversity, especially when you desire to do great things.”
Ismail isn’t the only Irish player whose legacy stems from that play and who used it as positive motivation for the rest of his life.
“People would talk about your background, find out you played football at Notre Dame, and the next thing you know, they’re talking about ‘the clip’ on Rocket Ismail’s punt return,” Greg Davis told South Bend Tribune reporter Eric Hansen for his 2005 book “Where Have You Gone,” which tracked down the whereabouts of several former Fighting Irish players. “Now they didn’t always put two and two together and figure out that the guy who was flagged for the clip was me, but I would let them know. I wasn’t going to run away from it.”
Indeed, Davis said in the same interview that the call “really looked like it could have gone either way.” The fact that it went against Notre Dame didn’t adversely affect Davis for the rest of his life. After graduating in May 1991, he embarked on a successful career in banking and individual investing while raising his daughter, Ryann Nicole, with wife Suelan.
Having the support of the Notre Dame family throughout certainly helped.
“Coach Holtz was always supportive about it, and my teammates were great,” Davis said. “Not once did they point the finger at me. I learned a lot about what great guys they were and what Notre Dame was all about.”
Coincidentally, Notre Dame faces Alabama for the 2012 national championship in the same city where their hearts were broken 22 years ago. A victory in the BCS title game would give Irish fans everywhere something else to think about whenever “Miami” comes up – even as the memories of “The Clip” and “Rocket’s Return That Wasn’t” continue to live on and affect players long after it happened.