'Rocket' isn't ready for Argo launch


TORONTO -- When the Toronto Argonauts signed Raghib "Rocket" Ismail for $18 million guaranteed, they expected him to bring them lots of publicity. He has, though most of it has been bad.

Ismail's lack of on-field production is generating the kind of headlines the Canadian Football League club wasn't counting on. Two Toronto newspapers recently reported a growing disenchantment among other Argos players after the rookie from Notre Dame missed more than three weeks of practice and both exhibition games with a strained left quadriceps muscle.

Now Toronto is faced with the prospect of opening its regular season tonight in Ottawa without the millionaire wide receiver/kick returner.

Late last week, even head coach Adam Rita was ripping Ismail.

Ismail, who signed a four-year contract in April, spent the last few days in Los Angeles, with owner Bruce McNall, having his aching leg examined by orthopedic specialist Steve Lombardo.

Ismail was expected to return to Toronto Tuesday night and join the team for its flight to Ottawa yesterday. He'll be at the team walk-through at the Rough Riders' Lansdowne Park, but the decision on whether he will play isn't expected until the last moment.

CFL rules allow clubs to make roster changes until an hour before kickoff. Argos general manager Mike McCarthy said the call belongs to Ismail.

The club's fans have already been disappointed once. More than 30,000 -- about double the normal crowd -- showed up for a Rocket-less preseason game with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers on June 26.

And Ottawa is expecting its first sellout (about 31,000) since 1975. Those folks may also get to see the Rocket do nothing more than model his uniform on the sidelines.

If Ismail does play, it's bound to be in a limited capacity. He hasn't run pass routes at full speed since the first week of camp, about a month ago. But neither the injury nor extractions of wisdom teeth have slowed the whirlwind pace of his promotional blitz.

Ismail was allowed to leave camp four or five times for promotional work; while in Los Angeles, he kept a scheduled date with a trading-card company.

"No ill will against the guy, but I feel there's been a lot of hype, a lot of expectations; now it's time to start playing," said slot back Darrell Smith, who caught 20 touchdown passes for Toronto last year.

Asked if he felt his was a minority opinion, Smith said, "I think I speak for a lot of the team, but there may be guys who are afraid to speak out because of who he is."

For his part, McCarthy is mindful that the CFL season is 18 games long, plus playoffs, which are no more than three games, and he doesn't want to lose Ismail for an extended time by rushing him back too quickly.

"We did that with [quarterback] Matt Dunigan last year. I traded six guys for him. He got hurt, he came back too soon, and he went out again. In all, he lost 10 games," McCarthy said.

"The Rocket is maybe 92 percent, but this kid is a racehorse, and you don't put a racehorse on the track unless he's 100 percent."

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