Qadry Ismail, the Ravens' well-traveled wide receiver, knows about perseverance.
Perseverance is playing for four NFL teams in three years. It's spending 13 games on the Miami Dolphins' inactive list in one season. It's going two years without a catch. It's getting bounced by the punchless New Orleans Saints.
"These last few years have been kind of like a wilderness experience," Ismail said yesterday, "from being in position where you're playing a lot to not playing at all."
The good news is, it's been a round-trip journey. After seemingly getting lost on the road to Miami and New Orleans, he has caught on with a team in desperate need of NFL-caliber receivers.
Through two games, the 28-year-old Ismail leads the Ravens with eight catches, good for 99 yards and one game-tying touchdown in a Week 2 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. These are his first two starts since 1996, and if this isn't a perfect match, it's as close as Ismail has gotten since he left Minnesota three years ago.
That's where he first played under Brian Billick, then the Vikings' offensive coordinator, now the Ravens' head coach.
"He's matured a great deal [since then]," Billick said. "A wife and children, that'll do it to you. Being in and out of the league, waived through a couple of teams, that'll do it to you. He understands this profession is short-lived. So I think he has a sense of urgency that a veteran has at his age."
It is an urgency born of dire circumstances. The seven-year veteran started a winding journey in 1997, when he signed as an unrestricted free agent with the Green Bay Packers. Two months later, during training camp, he was traded to Miami.
Then, in the next two seasons, he played in only 13 games, caught zero passes and was used almost exclusively to return kicks. His was a career headed toward the waiver wire.
In the midst of all that inactivity, Ismail, a Christian, experienced a spiritual awakening and a physical rejuvenation. The breakthrough came in Miami, oddly enough, under coach Jimmy Johnson.
"I'd be going home every day, driving in the car, thinking, 'Lord, when is this going to end?' " he said of his days with the Dolphins. "But there was a small voice inside of me, saying very calmly, 'Qadry, trust in me, not in yourself.'
"I really believe there was a lot of maturing I had to do. The way to purify things, you've got to put them through fire to get them refined. I believe those two years were my 'fire' experience, to shake off some things that were on me."
What Ismail discovered in Miami was that he didn't have the right priorities in Minnesota. His work habits, his attitude, his whole approach fell short.
"[Vikings receiver] Cris Carter and I used to have many an argument about what he thought I should do and what I thought I was doing," Ismail said. "I didn't listen."
In Minnesota's offense, he had been a promising third receiver (45 catches, five touchdowns in 1994). In Miami in 1997, he was little more than a scout-team scrub. Still, he made the most of it.
"I think working with Jimmy Johnson really helped me out a lot," Ismail said. "He's one of the most positive coaches I've ever been around. He sees everything. I told my wife [Holly], I need to write him a letter. I don't know why he didn't release me early on."
New Orleans was more of the same in 1998 (10 games, 28 kickoff returns, no reprieves on offense). But he persevered.
"After that season was over, I said if I do get an opportunity, I won't put myself in a position where I'm not ready again," Ismail said.
So far with the Ravens, he's done exactly that. He prepares more thoroughly, studies more diligently, plays more consistently.
"He's been a surprise to me," said receivers coach Milt Jackson. "The last contact I had with him was at the [1993 scouting] combine. I only talked to him for a second, but I said there's no way I'd draft that guy. "Now he's a totally different person from the way he was."
Now, Jackson said, Ismail "pays attention to detail and works on the little things that all the real good receivers do."
For two weeks, anyway, it's been like old times for the former Syracuse star. If Ismail turned his personal corner two years ago in Miami, the Ravens may be the benefactors of his transformation.
"My goal is simple," Ismail said. "Be a consistent, productive, big-play wide receiver. If I can do that, everything else will fall in line."
Next for Ravens
Opponent: Cleveland Browns
Site: PSINet Stadium
When: Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)
Line: Ravens by 12
Tickets: Sold out
Pub Date: 9/24/99