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Launch of Rocket Is Still on Hold : Pro football: Raiders not saying when Ismail will make his debut.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Whenever it seems that receiver/return man Rocket Ismail is about to launch his NFL career, the countdown is put on hold.

His first flight has been scrubbed more times than the floor of an operating room.

When Ismail was streaking down the field for Notre Dame as one of college’s football’s premier players, there was speculation that he would hit the NFL with a bang worthy of his nickname as the No. 1 pick in the draft.

Instead, Ismail succumbed to the lure of an $18-million contract from Bruce McNall, owner of the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League.

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Hold that NFL countdown.

Ismail signed a four-year deal to play in the CFL, but that didn’t discourage the Raiders. They gambled and picked him in the fourth round of the 1991 draft.

But after taking the Argonauts to a Grey Cup championship in his first CFL season, Ismail wasn’t ready to come home.

Hold that countdown.

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It was only last spring, after he had worn out his welcome in Canada, that Ismail was finally ready to join the Raiders.

That was in March.

But contract negotiations dragged on and on, through spring into summer, through mini-camps into training camp.

Hold that countdown.

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The Raiders waited until the week before the season started to finally sign their high-profile player.

There was great anticipation that he would be matched against his brother, Qadry, in the opener against the Minnesota Vikings.

Hold that countdown.

The Raiders didn’t activate the Rocket, fearing that, if the receivers ahead of him should get hurt, he wasn’t yet sufficiently knowledgeable about the passing game to contribute.

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Ismail got a full week of practice last week, was activated Saturday and everyone awaited his debut Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks.

Hold that countdown.

Ismail went up and down the field all right, pacing the sideline, helmet in hand, while the Raiders beat the Seahawks, 17-13.

So what gives?

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“We have some young receivers who have been in camp a long time,” Coach Art Shell said. “Our two starters (Tim Brown and Alexander Wright) are playing exceptionally well. So to try and throw Rocket into the mix would be the wrong thing to do in my mind.

“The Rocket will get his chance to play. It’s a long year. We’ve got 14 games to play in the regular season. . . . His time will come. We’ve got some other kids who are wide-eyed and bushy-tailed and they want to play, too.”

Ismail said he’s not upset.

“If I knew the plays 100%, I’d be anxious,” he said. “But I’m not ready to be thrown in with a little bit of ammunition. I want to wait until I have a whole cartridge.”

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If the Raiders are deep in the receiving corps, though, they are anything but in the kickoff-return department.

“I’m sure (Ismail) will eventually be returning kicks,” Shell said. “Punts, I’m not sure. We feel we have the best punt returner in the league in Tim Brown. Rocket? Put him back there and maybe he’ll be the best. But right now, we’re pretty squared away in the punt-return game.”

When asked by a reporter if the word eventually means Ismail won’t necessarily return kicks Sunday at the Coliseum against the Cleveland Browns, Shell showed a flash of anger.

“You keep trying to rush me,” he responded. “I’m not going to let you do that to me. You keep trying to tell me how I’m going to play him and when I’m going to play him.

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“I’ll play him when I deem it necessary.”

In the meantime, hold that countdown.


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