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Wearing No. 25 for the Irish, a new ‘Rocket’ might be ready to soar

Chris Tyree is well aware of Ismail’s legacy and aims to honor it with more electrifying kick returns.

Chris Tyree
Notre Dame running back Chris Tyree (25) in action against Toledo in an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. Notre Dame won 32-29. (AP Photo/AJ Mast) ORG XMIT: _A121572
AJ MAST/AP

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — His beard is thick now and filled with more salt than pepper, but Raghib “Rocket” Ismail’s 51-year-old eyes flash with youthful memories at the mere mention of Chris Tyree.

The latest Notre Dame speedster to wear No. 25 in honor of the 1990 Heisman Trophy runner-up, Tyree ended a five-year program drought when he returned a kickoff 96 yards for a game-changing touchdown against Wisconsin on Sept. 25.

Ismail, a 2019 inductee to the College Football Hall of Fame, took five kickoffs to the house in his three unforgettable years with the Fighting Irish. So it was only fitting that he was at Soldier Field on the afternoon of Tyree’s breakthrough.

“That was huge,” Ismail said last Saturday after spending an hour outside Notre Dame Stadium posing for pictures at a promotional appearance. “And in that moment we needed that. It changed the whole spirit of the game, the momentum of the game. It just made me feel really good.”

Irish hearts would sink later in the day as No. 7 Cincinnati ended a 26-game home winning streak. Tyree’s costly fumble on a first-half kickoff return contributed greatly to that 24-13 loss.

Yet, as Tyree returns home this Saturday night to face Virginia Tech, there’s no denying the potential for the sophomore’s greatest attribute to impact future victories.

“I just feel like that was the tip of the iceberg,” Ismail said. “It’s like, ‘Wow, the next generation is taking it to new heights.’ And that’s my expectation. Regardless of what people say, I’m expecting him to do that and more.”

The two have never spoken, although Tyree said he was well aware of Ismail’s legacy, even before Notre Dame invoked his golden name during the recruiting process. Richard Tyree would sit with young Chris on college football Saturdays at the family home in Chester, Virginia, outside Richmond.

“My dad is a really big football guy,” Tyree said. “He was the one that introduced me to football. I was 4 years old watching ESPN, watching random teams. I understand that there’s a lot of history at Notre Dame. I knew who Rocket was.”

Receiver Braden Lenzy, who wore the number as a Notre Dame freshman in 2019, had switched to No. 0. When Tyree arrived on campus in June 2020, the No. 25 jersey was waiting in his locker.

Tyree knew immediately what that meant and called home to share the news with his father.

“It was a really cool sight,” Tyree said. “It’s a big honor to be able to wear it.”

Despite Ismail’s towering legacy, Tyree downplayed any notion of an added burden that might go along with wearing No. 25.

“I wouldn’t say there’s any pressure,” Tyree said. “I have so many things to worry about during the game, but I understand the honor and I understand who came before me.”

Taught proper running form as a freshman at Thomas Dale High School by track coach Jamarri Price, Tyree became a state champion sprinter and still glides effortlessly, even in full football gear. At Price’s urging, Tyree studied tape of all-time great Usain Bolt and Olympic-level sprinters Trayvon Bromell and Christian Coleman.

What would he ask Ismail about?

“Just being that he was so fast, being able to take advantage of that and just manipulating defenders,” Tyree said. “Even watching old YouTube clips of him, it was like he was just running by people. I would definitely ask him how he attacked angles and stuff like that.”

Ismail, his accessibility to the team limited by the pandemic, looks forward to meeting Tyree. He plans to tell the young man about Laura Bauknight, the grandmother who raised Ismail and younger brother Qadry in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

“She was a Sunday school teacher, and she used to always tell us about Christ and the principle of greater works,” Ismail said. “Anytime you see [number] 25, my expectation is always that there will be a great return, whether it’s a kickoff return, punt return or in production.”

There’s more, of course.

“I’m going to tell him that he’s supposed to expect the same thing,” Ismail said. “The tradition that the No. 25 represents at the University of Notre Dame, he’s going to put an extra shine on it, extra light. It’s going to be a higher expectation, and expect to be able to accomplish it — period.”

The famous eyes flash again.

“No fear, no worries, no anxiety, man,” Ismail said. “God gave him everything he needs to shine his light.”