My freshman year at Notre Dame was Charlie Weis’ last at the university. His team went 6-6 for the second year in a row after the 3-9 debacle in 2007, and he was promptly fired and replaced with Brian Kelly in December of 2009.
Weis’ team that year had its flaws (especially on defense), but had absolutely no business finishing 6-6. Junior QB Jimmy Clausen threw 28 TDs and only 4 INTs in one of the most accurate and efficient displays of quarterbacking I’ve ever seen, and he was tossing the ball to a few guys you might have heard of like Golden Tate, Michael Floyd, and Kyle Rudolph.
Despite the team’s under-performance all season, I have a few fond memories from that year nonetheless - my first game as a student when ND squashed Colin Kapernick and Nevada 35-0, a crazy overtime win against Washington, Golden Tate’s Hail Mary catch against Washington State, etc.
But probably my favorite memory from that year was the build-up to the USC game. The Trojans were touted as one of the best teams in the country, ranked 6th, sporting a 4-1 record, and fielding a team with players like Matt Barkley (in college, so he was very very good), Joe McKnight, Damian Williams, Taylor Mays, Chris Gallippo, Everson Griffin, Devon Kennard, etc.
ND was also 4-1, but hadn’t looked quite as impressive as USC while losing a heartbreaker to Michigan and narrowly defeating Michigan State and Washington.
So, ranked 25th but having lost to USC 7 straight times, all of us Fighting Irish fans were cautious to feel anything more than desperate hope that we could actually knock off Pete Carroll’s juggernaut of a program. However, we were definitely a student body/fan base just begging for a call to brash confidence and reinvigorated hope, because we wanted to beat those hated Trojans more than anything else.
Most pep rallies at Notre Dame are pretty much garbage. They long ago stopped being just for the students and are now an event for tons of older fans to drag children to in order to hear some mediocre speeches from a few players and maybe a special guest.
Of course there are occasional amazing moments, like the combination of Prince Shembo’s bike seat and Troy Niklas loving the pain before Michigan in 2012, but overall the students quickly find out these rallies aren’t usually worth attending and aren’t very fun.
The pep rally for USC in 2009 was different, though. I was still a freshman who wanted to attend pep rallies, and my fellow students and I were still all searching for a win over the Trojans, considering ND hadn’t accomplished that since Bob Davie was coach. So when we heard Rocket Ismail was going to be speaking at the pep rally, we made sure to attend. We had to hear what he had to say.
His speech was fiery and emotional and he didn’t say much but at the same time he said everything. I’m going to break his speech down for you all so we can better understand why this pep rally was completely lit because of Rocket’s oratory abilities. First, though, please watch the speech and feel the Beat SC spirit flow through you.
[0:00 - 0:03]: Nothing of note happens, except for Rocket being introduced and the team standing on stage looking pretty disinterested. This is the last time in this video you will see that.
[0:04 - 0:06]: Rocket Ismail grabs the microphone and immediately lets out a wild banshee shout. This dude means business and has everyone’s ears, just like that.
[0:07 - 0:20]: Rocket begins stomping around the stage with authority, shouting “LET’S GET IT!” over and over again as the crowd, and the team behind him, begins to go bananas. This ain’t your milquetoast, typical pep rally, folks.
[0:21 - 0:31]: Rocket shouts “Hey!” a lot and offers up a couple more “LET’s GET ITs” for good measure. Repetition is key, and Rocket knows that.
[0:32 - 0:40]: Rocket finally launches into his speech, telling everyone to get “this” into their mind and into their heart right now. He’s drawing us all in, about to deliver a poignant, powerful message that will bond us all together as we take on the Trojans of Southern California the next day.
[0:41 - 0:53]: Rocket shouts “IT ENDS TONIGHT” as he jaunts across the stage, making sure to deliver the message with strong eye contact to various subsections of the crowd, as any good speech coach would teach. Rocket Ismail is a polished public speaker and is connecting with everyone in the audience as he conveys his message.
[0:54 - 0:57]: “Don’t wait ‘til tomorrow!” is uttered various times by Ismail, building up to one of my favorite parts of the speech and the moment where I truly believed Notre Dame would take down USC...
[0:58 - 1:08]: Rocket Ismail emphatically jumps into the air and brings his feet down hard as he drives home his point of “RIGHT NOW!” The stomping-leap reminds me of someone jumping on a Stomp Rocket.
I don’t know how many of you remember that toy but I certainly do and if there were a Stomp Rocket underneath Rocket Ismail during said stomp the rocket would have probably made it to the moon, if not farther. I will now also refer to that moment as the Stomp Rocket because it resembles playing with that toy and it involves a guy named Rocket stomping, so it just makes sense.
After Stomp Rocket happens, Rocket then angrily stomps around the stage screaming the same phrase as people like Sergio Brown behind him continue to get into it, beginning to believe.
[1:09 - 1:18]: Rocket Ismail informs us all that the game between ND and USC is, in fact, not a game. This twist in his story certainly leaves all the fans and players on the edges of their metaphorical seats, waiting to hear what this football game is if it isn’t a game, as we all originally thought.
[1:19 - 1:24]: “We are talkin’ about some legendary stuff, about to drop off, up in this stadium!” Rocket delivers this line incredibly well. I am bashing my head against the wall at this point, ready to destroy anything wearing red and yellow in my path. So is everyone else. There’s no way any USC fans walking by this rally make it off campus alive.
[1:25 - 1:28]: *A well-placed dramatic pause to allow the message to sink in and for Rocket to soak up all the adoration and applause the audience is tossing his way.*
[1:29 - 1:35]: Rocket really wants us to know that it ends tonight, not tomorrow. He really does.
[1:36 - 1:38]: Seriously, get it in your heart.
[1:39 - 1:55]: Rocket makes his inspirational seminar interactive and has everyone complete a quick but effective activity within small groups. Everyone turns to the people next to them and says “don’t flinch” and it’s very effective. No one flinches, at least from what I can see on the video or remember from being there. Excellent coaching from Rocket.
[1:56 - 2:15]: “I didn’t come here to make you feel good. I came here to tell ya the truth. Bout to set you free up in this camp.” The crowd and team love this. Theo Riddick can be seen guffawing in the front behind Rocket as Ismail heads into the next section of his talk. The team is clearly responding to his message.
[2:16 - 2:31]: The call to action - “Turn to the person next to you and say GO GET IT. Turn to the person on the other side of you and say GO GET IT.” At this point we are just screaming these words at each other, not even registering what we are saying but knowing it means we are going to go beat USC.
[2:32 - 2:45]: This is still not a game. This is the least surprising moment of the speech.
[2:46 - 3:10]: Rocket gets real with us and starts stirring up those goosebumps: “Remember this. Remember this. Before you accomplish anything great or significant in life, there’s always gonna be an obstacle. The greater the challenge, the greater you have to believe” (Rocket points to the crowd and everyone starts to get a little rowdy and loud).
[3:11 - 3:20]: “Don’t just give lip service to it, don’t just give lip service to it! It’s about BEING PART OF YOUR FIBER (begins pounding chest)! It’s about BEING PART OF YOUR HEARTBEAT!” (Crowd starts to go ballistic).
[3:21 - 3:30]: This is, unsurprisingly, still not a game. And Rocket reminds us of that again, getting louder every time he says it. If he told the crowd and team to follow him off a cliff right now, I think 90% of those people would follow him blindly.
[3:31 - 3:45]: Rocket tells us as fans that the team is ready (6 times) as LB Brian Smith mops his head with a towel and acts like he’s at one of those churches that Borat went to in Borat.
[3:46 - 3:55]: Rocket inquires to the crowd as to whether or not they, too, are prepared - thrice. Each time more intense than the last, with more Stomp Rockets as well.
[3:56 - 3:58]: “Then don’t flinch, and GO GET IT!” The closing line, and one that will resonate with Notre Dame fans for years to come.
[3:59 - 4:06]: Rocket fully extends his hand, gripping the microphone, straight up above his head, with a menacing, determined scowl on his face and a gleaming, warrior-like fire in his eyes. Then, with the crowd reaching a fever pitch, he releases his hold on the mic with no regard for its safety, dropping it emphatically and walking off the stage to his right with a swagger Notre Dame football hadn’t seen since, well, he played at Notre Dame. The camera pans out, the team is waving their towels rambunctiously and the crowd is going berserk. These people are ready to end it TONIGHT.
[4:07 - 4:16]: As we see Rocket put a towel into his waistband and accept congratulations on a dope speech by Joe Theisman, who spoke right before him at this rally, we hear a voice shout “LET’S GO GET IT!” off-screen. The camera pans back to the middle of the stage, where Sergio Brown has picked up the microphone and is leading a mosh pit of upperclassmen jumping up and down, ready to rip Matt Barkley’s head off while chanting “LET’S GO GET IT!” This makes a lot of sense, because Sergio Brown has since given the world the below moment and has a knack for getting his team all jacked up.
[4:17 - end]: The crowd joins in and we get a call-and-response chant with the football team and student body uniting in one ultimate demonstration of hating USC. It’s absolutely beautiful to watch.
Hopefully now you all understand why I love this speech and why it means so much heading into any Beat SC week.
Notre Dame ended up losing that game 34-27, but not before an exhilarating comeback that included a fake punt pass to Robby Parris, Golden Tate making USC DBs look like punks, Jimmy Clausen running for a touchdown, and Gary Gray coming up with a HUGE interception. I don’t think that comeback or any of those big plays that comprised it would have happened had it not been for the magical, awesome words of Rocket Ismail the night before.
Clausen’s pass attempt to Duval Kamara as time expired on the goal line would have tied the game if it were caught, but Kamara stumbled and the ball bounced harmlessly off the grass, ending the game in USC’s favor once again. Losing to this team is the absolute worst, and even in a nightmare season like 2016, beating USC and playing spoiler to their season can offer a tiny reprieve from the depressing reality that is Notre Dame football fandom right now.
So, be sure to watch Rocket’s speech like 1,000 times more before the game on Saturday, and take to heart his simple, powerful words.
All this losing and vacating wins, trying to rationalize accepting mediocrity and no longer being the best program in the country?
It ends tonight.
It ends now.
Don’t wait until next year and accept where we are currently. Don’t feel satisfied with anything better than the absolute best from this program and this team.
Don’t flinch, and go get it.