The same man that lured hockey great Wayne Gretzky from his native country has wooed Notre Dame superstar Raghib "Rocket" Ismail to the Canadian Football League.
And the price Bruce McNall will pay for his new acquisition is upwards of $26 million over a four-yearperiod, the most lucrative contract in pro football history.
Some say Ismail is foregoing the fame and prestige of the NFL for the riches offered him to play for the Toronto Argonauts. But Ismail quickly refutes that.
He says he spurned the NFL because of his respect for McNall, a coin dealer by trade who a few years ago bought the NHL's Los Angeles Kings and added Wayne Gretzky as a $15 million accessory.
The portly, congenial entrepreneur also purchased a stable full of winning thoroughbreds, the world's most expensive baseball card and, most recently, the Argonauts, along with Gretzky and actor John Candy. They each have a 20 percent stake in the team.
"Mr. McNall and his organization have the reputation of treating people as more than a piece of meat," said Ismail, wearing a navy blue and white Argos cap during a news conference Sunday at a Los Angeles hotel. "I've met a lot of NFL owners, and I got a different feeling when I met Mr. McNall and the people of his organization."
For his part, McNall hopes Ismail will draw more spectators to Argos games, the way attendance at the Forum skyrocketed with the arrival of Gretzky in 1988.
In wooing Ismail, McNall wined, dined and took the wide receiver and return specialist to Kings games. Two weeks ago, he flew Ismail to Toronto for a Blue Jays game and a tour of the city.
Ismail, who is black, said he was impressed by the "cultural diversity" in Toronto. At one point, he pointed to his skin, suggesting that racism isn't a major problem in the Canadian city.
"You don't get the feeling of closed-mindedness," Ismail said. "It's a feeling that I hadn't really felt before."
McNall said Ismail's contract includes a guaranteed $18 million over four years and incentives that could increase the value of the deal to more than $26 million.
Some of the incentives in Ismail's contract are based on his ability to boost attendance for Toronto games in the SkyDome. McNall denied reports that the package also includes condominiums in Toronto and Los Angeles and part ownership of the Argos.
The pressure on Ismail will be intense once he joins the Argos, who lost in the CFL East Division final last season.