The Art of the Rocket deal

Rocket Ismail, Bruce McNall, Wayne Gretzky and John Candy pose for a photo in the early 90s. The...

Rocket Ismail, Bruce McNall, Wayne Gretzky and John Candy pose for a photo in the early 90s. The 1991 Grey Cup champion Argos will be honoured this weekend as the team gets together for it’s 20-year reunion.

STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:55 PM ET

TORONTO - When Bruce McNall purchased the Toronto Argonauts in 1991, in partnership with Wayne Gretzky and John Candy, he had a few words of advice for the general manager he inherited, Mike McCarthy.

“I want you to think big,” he said to rather squat McCarthy.

“I always think big,” McCarthy told his new boss. For the first three weeks of McNall’s time owning the Argos, tickets were selling, the public was intrigued by the thought of celebrity ownership, and the phones were ringing off the hooks at the Argos’ offices. Until it all came to a quiet halt.

That’s when McCarthy first thought about Rocket Ismail. “Actually, if you go back a few months to January, I was watching the Orange Bowl and Rocket was playing for Notre Dame. He ran back two kickoffs for touchdowns. I thought then ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have a guy like that?’ Then I came back to my senses.

“But when Bruce bought the team, and I was thinking ‘Let’s do something big.’ I called Roy Mlakar (McNall’s chief administrator) and told him what I had in mind. He liked the idea. We decided to go after Rocket, who was projected to be the first pick in the NFL draft. And we were serious about it. We weren’t doing this for publicity. Roy told Bruce but Bruce couldn’t keep it to himself.”

On March 20, 1991, McCarthy put Rocket Ismail on the Argos secret negotiation list, foreshadowing the single largest signing in Canadian Football League history. The matter was secretive to McCarthy but not to McNall. “He told everybody ‘We’re going after Rocket Ismail,’” said McCarthy. “And for the next few days, my phone was ringing constantly, press calling, football people calling, agents, everything. It was a crazy time.”

So began this crazy time, that championship season for a football team suddenly in vogue with celebrity ownership, surprising interest, and the great pursuit of the unlikely.

The first real conversation McCarthy had about Ismail came with his agent, Ed Abram. Understandably, Abram didn’t really take McCarthy or the Argos seriously, even though McNall had gone public said he’d be willing to pay $6 million for two seasons with the Argos. “I still didn’t believe any of it,” said Abram

Ismail’s San Francisco based lawyers were far more open to negotiation. They were well aware of McNall from the Gretzky purchase. They called McNall in Los Angeles and requested a meeting.

McNall ran the meeting of April 5, leaving out few details but not talking money. “He was very impressive,” said McCarthy. “I was so impressed with Bruce McNall that if I’d had a pen, I would have signed the contract myself.”

The California lawyers were clearly smitten. The following day they let the Argonauts know that Rocket wanted to visit Toronto.

Four days later, McNall sent his private jet to South Bend, Ind., flew Ismail and his lawyer, to Toronto. That night, Ismail was taken out on the town by Argo players Matt Dunigan, Darryl K. Smith, Mike (Pinball) Clemons and Harold Hallman. Whenever he has been asked about that night, Ismail only blushes.

In the same week, Rocket met McNall for the very first time. The name of the street they met on: Avenue of the Stars. McNall took Ismail and Dunigan for lunch on Rodeo Drive and lavished them with gifts.

“That’s where McNall’s style comes in,’’ Mlakar said at the time, long before McNall got into legal troubles. “He gets to know you, you get to know him ... it’s how he operates. He has a great touch with people.’’

That same day, Rocket had his girlfriend fly to Los Angeles and the two accompanied McNall in the Kings owner’s box for a Los Angeles-Vancouver playoff game. Sylvester Stallone and Tom Hanks stopped by to say hello. Before leaving that night, Rocket hugged McNall and his assistant Sue Waks.

“You’ve got him,” Kings GM Rogie Vachon told McNall at the time. “I could tell from the look in his eyes that you’ve got him.”

On April 16, with the first pick in the NFL draft, the New England Patriots made an offer to Ismail’s agent. The deal was for five years, $10 million, including bonuses. The deal was turned down by Abram.

When New England couldn’t sign Ismail, they turned around and traded the pick to Dallas. Immediately, the Ismail attorneys began negotiating with Dallas owner Jerry Jones. When Jones was informed of what the Argos were offering, he said he couldn’t compete with those figures.

“The key to getting Rocket was guaranteeing the money,” said McCarthy. “The NFL couldn’t do that kind of deal at the time. We could make side deals with players.”

On April 20, 1991, one month after his name appeared on a CFL neg list, Rocket Ismail, wide receiver, kick returner, sprinter, flew to Los Angeles, met with McNall between periods of a playoff game at the Forum, and the 24-page contract making him an Argo, defying both logic and economics. The deal was to pay Ismail $18.2 million over four years. Ismail wound up playing two years for the Argos.

And on Friday night, with McNall and Gretzky absent, the 1991 Grey Cup champion Argonauts met at a downtown Toronto restaurant for a reunion and tonight they will be honoured at halftime of the Argos game. The Grey Cup MVP, Ismail, will be there and so will their former GM McCarthy.

And what will McCarthy’s first words to Ismail be?

“You got any of that money left?”


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