No Notre Dame player was in sight when Coach Lou Holtz strolled back into the locker room, an hour after Saturday's 10-6 victory over USC, looking for Rocket Ismail.
"Hey, Rock!" the coach called out, coming toward Ismail's corner of the Coliseum clubhouse. "Rock, I just ran into the most absolutely beautiful lady outside in the hallway, and she. . . ."
Holtz turned the corner, quickly discovering that he was talking to nobody.
"Rock?" he asked.
"Hey, Rock! You there?"
Holtz proceeded to do what USC's defense had tried Saturday to do . . . what every Notre Dame opponent had tried to do:
Find Raghib Ismail and contain him.
Doing everything short of searching underneath a tossed-aside towel, Holtz finally located Notre Dame's most popular Rock since Rockne in an alcove beyond Ismail's locker, just out of view.
"Hello, coach," said the modest Ismail, somewhat sheepishly.
He poked his head out and heard the coach congratulate him on the way he played. For a solid week, Holtz had cast doubt on whether Ismail would play at all. A thigh bruise had kept the Heisman Trophy candidate from practicing at full speed--on some days at any speed--and all Holtz had guaranteed was that he would reserve Ismail a seat on the team plane.
Well, Ismail played. He carried six times for 39 yards, caught two long passes, returned kicks and kept USC aware of his presence from start to finish. With less than a minute remaining in the game, the injured Ismail was still running sweeps.
He ran better injured than most players do healthy.
So, Holtz had something to tell him.
Something that warranted his returning to the locker room long after the game, just to find Ismail and tell him.
Something that the normally privacy-obsessed coach didn't mind outsiders hearing.
Something about the Heisman, which is a sore subject to Holtz when the regular season is still in progress.
But now it was over, and only the Orange Bowl remained, and the Heisman vote would be announced the following Saturday. So Holtz wanted to give Rocket Ismail his personal seal of approval for all to hear.
"Rock, I just want to tell you one thing," Holtz said. "I don't know what's gonna happen with that Heisman Trophy, but if you don't get it, they oughta stop givin' it."
Ismail looked at his shoes and did an aw-shucks.
"Thanks, Coach," he said.
With that, Holtz was out of there. He left so fast, he forgot to tell Ismail about the lady in the hallway. A sportswriter standing nearby had to ask him who she was.
"His mom," Holtz said.
Oh, you must mean that lady in the hallway wearing the jersey with "Ismail" embroidered across the back. That lady.
Rocket Ismail was eager to see her, too. But first, a word about the Heisman Trophy.
You there, Rock?
Think you'll win it, Rock?
The elusive Ismail, who doesn't much like to talk about himself, gave it the old college try.
"I don't think I hurt myself today," Ismail said. "But I don't think I did anything so outstanding. I doubt if anybody out there was watching me and saying: 'Oh, yeah! Definitely! He's got it now!' "
Maybe not, but the Rocket sure showed them something when he broke a pass by Rick Mirer for a long-gainer, only to see it called back because of a penalty, then proceeded to do an instant-replay job that covered 41 yards on the next play.
All the while playing in pain.
"Got to bite the bullet," Ismail said.
He practiced three minutes on Thanksgiving before the team trainer yanked him off the field. He ran 15 minutes of drills Friday before the same trainer told Holtz to get Ismail out of there.
Teammates thought for sure he would play. They just weren't sure how well.
"He wasn't totally himself," Todd Lyght said. "When he ran, I could tell."
Said Tony Brooks: "The dude's got a million moves, and he only used a couple of dozen today."
"He was running up and down the halls at the hotel," Mirer said. "I knew he'd play, but I know he was hurting. He blocked out the pain."
Even an injured Ismail is impressive.
"Tell me about it," Chris Zorich said. "I'm just damn glad I don't have to tackle him."
Mirer added: "I think he's as good as any player in the country. Even if he doesn't have the ball, you've got to keep an eye on him."
The eyes of NFL scouts are on Ismail, who has another year of eligibility left if he wants it. Question is, does he want it?
"Lately, people have been really pressing me on that," Ismail said. "I try not to be wooed by the big dollars. I fully, honestly expect to be back at Notre Dame."
The other day, Holtz asked Ismail if he had any plans for next Saturday. Rocket said he and his roommates fully, honestly intended to visit Indiana University to see some friends.
"Then coach says: 'Rock, you're not gonna be at IU next Saturday! The Heisman Trophy is next Saturday!' " Ismail recalled.
"And I said: 'Oh! That Saturday!' "
That was enough talking about himself for one day, so Rocket took off. Over his shoulder he called: "OK, thank you. You take care now."
Whereupon a woman in a blue jersey with "Ismail" across the back practically tackled him. "We won! We won! We won!" said Fatma Ismail, mother of Rocket.
"Aw, mom," he said.