Remembering When Projected Number One Pick in NFL Draft Decided To Play in Canada Instead

Once upon a time in North American football.Imagine if Baker Mayfield said to the Cleveland Browns - thanks but no thanks, I'm playing for the Calgary Stampeders.

Imagine if Andrew Luck phoned up the Indianapolis Colts in 2012 and told them that he was deciding to take his talents to Montreal instead.

It seems ridiculous to think that a CFL (Canadian Football League) team could snatch away someone from the NFL, let alone a projected #1 overall draft pick.

In this day and age, it would almost certainly never happen.

In 1991, however, this is exactly what happened when Raghib "The Rocket" Ismail shunned the NFL and decided to sign with the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL instead.

Ismail wasn't a good college football player that maybe had a chance to make the NFL. He was a GREAT college football player that was the projected #1 overall pick in the draft.

How could this have happened?


Raghib Ismail was fast. Very, very fast.

During his three years with Notre Dame, Ismail compiled nearly 2,600 yards from scrimmage, including 1,015 yards on the ground and 1,565 yards receiving. In his role as an offensive player, Ismail found the end zone a total of nine times during his time with Notre Dame.

Ismail was also used to return punts and kickoffs, and this is where he was particularly lethal. During his college career, Ismail returned a total of 71 combined punts and kickoffs and found the end zone a total of six times.

Ismail helped to give Notre Dame a lethal attack, and the team was very good during Ismail's run with the team, as they won the College Football Championship in 1988. Accolades rolled in for Ismail, and he finished second in Heisman Trophy voting to Ty Detmer during the 1990 season.

Ismail was also a track star at Notre Dame, running the 100 meter dash in a personal best time of 10.2 seconds.

Combine this with Ismail's All-American status with the Notre Dame football team and you had the recipe for Ismail to become a very sought-after commodity for NFL teams.

As mentioned, Ismail was the #1 projected pick in the NFL draft - most expected that the Dallas Cowboys (who owned the #1 pick) would take Ismail.


On February 25th, 1991, a group consisting of Bruce McNall, the late John Candy and Wayne Gretzky bought the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League.

McNall, who owned the Los Angeles Kings, had made a massive splash when he traded for Wayne Gretzky in 1998.

The new ownership group of the Toronto Argonauts wanted to make a similar splash. They settled on a target - Raghib Ismail.


The Dallas Cowboys had traded for the #1 overall pick in the 1991 NFL Draft. According to the Washington Post, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, Jerry Jones, had his sights set on Ismail.

The problem? Ismail was negotiating with another party as the same time that he was negotiating with the Dallas Cowboys. In the end, Bruce McNall made Ismail an offer that he couldn't refuse, and the Cowboys were left empty-handed.

It seems ridiculous to think that in 1991, the world's highest paid football player played in the CFL, but that's exactly what happened after the Toronto Argonauts made Ismail the highest paid football player in the world. In 1991, Ismail made more money than Emmitt Smith, Jerry Rice, Steve Young or Barry Sanders.

The deal? 4 years, $26.2 million. That translates to $48.07 million in today's dollars.

The deal that Ismail signed was quite crazy and included:

-a guarantee for almost all of the money
-$3.5 million in annual base salary
-10% ownership of the Argonauts by the end of the deal
-$5 per seat sold in Toronto for anything over 40,000 per game, up to a maximum of $1 million/year
-$1 million in guaranteed "endorsement revenue" per year
-tax differential clause, where the Toronto ownership group would make up the difference for higher Canadian taxes
-luxury box at the SkyDome
-a new car up to a maximum value of $100,000

Take a second and think about this fact - the salary cap, per team, in the CFL for the 2018 season was $5.2 million. The Argonauts truly opened up the vault to Ismail prior to the 1991 season, and it's not very surprising that he turned down the NFL (according to reports, Ismail had wanted something in the neighborhood of $3 million a year to play in the NFL).

Ismail was gone for the CFL. The NFL was stunned. The Los Angeles Raiders would still pick up the rights to Ismail with the 100th overall pick in the 1991 draft, just in case that things with the Argonauts didn't work out.


Ismail would only end up playing for two years in the CFL, though his time with the team was very productive.

The Argonauts would win the Grey Cup in Ismail's first year with the team, and Ismail would finish second in Rookie of the Year voting.

Ismail would compile an insane amount of all-purpose yardage in his two years with the Argonauts - over 1,900 in receiving yards, over 420 rushing yards, nearly 2,000 kickoff return yards, over 1,200 punt return yardage and an additional 200+ in missed field goal return yardage.

In the end, however, Bruce McNall was struggling financially (he would eventually go to prison for conspiracy and fraud in 1993) and Ismail eventually left the team. After the Argonauts went 6-12 in 1992, Ismail said that he was unhappy in the CFL and returned to the NFL. The Los Angeles Raiders owned his rights and signed him to a deal.

Ismail would play nine seasons in the NFL, with his best season likely coming in 1999 when he scored found the end zone seven times and had nearly 1,100 in receiving yardage. This would be Ismail's second straight 1,000+ yard season - it seemed like he had finally arrived.


Injuries would end up derailing Ismail's career, as he tore his ACL in 2000 and suffered a herniated disk in his neck in 2002. That would be it for his career, as he announced his retirement in 2003.


The sports world has changed dramatically over the past 30 years.

The NFL has been a towering success during that time, with growing TV revenues making each and every NFL owner a billionaire.

The CFL, on the other hand, has more or less stagnated.

In short - another "Rocket" Ismail type of situation will almost certainly never happen again.

Filed under: General Knowledge

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