Every athletic career has its turning points, events without which a story might be very different.
Nathan Rourke’s first one came at the tender age of three when, one day at home with his mother, Robyn, he stumbled upon a VHS tape highlighting the 1996 Green Bay Packers.
The tape belonged to his father, Larry, who was at work. So, Robyn, at first amused that her eldest boy seemed to find the tape interesting, allowed him to keep watching.
“I thought, ‘This won’t last … it’s going to be pretty boring for a three-year-old,’” she recalls. “But he started watching that and he would watch it every day.”
For at least the next two years, it was all Rourke would watch. No cartoons. No Treehouse. Just the Packers.
“He didn’t want to watch anything that was age appropriate,” said Robyn. “I consider that he was studying film from the age of three … It was quite remarkable.”
Though he may not have realized it, Rourke’s study of Brett Favre and the Packers was more than just entertaining him, it was helping him form a vision of his future. He soon decided he wanted to play football and he wanted to play quarterback. Just like Favre.
His love of football was obvious in those early years when the family was living in Waterloo, Ont., even if it was occasionally misplaced.
“He was playing soccer at about age three and one game he was assigned to guard the best player on the other team,” recalls Larry. “And I do vividly remember this kid on the other team started with the ball and everyone was yelling ‘Nathan, get him, get him! So, Nathan dove and tackled him, which I thought was awesome.
“The parents on the other team were not happy about it … and I just thought ‘Okay, soccer is probably not going to be his thing.’”
But football was and has been ever since, even though he played many sports growing up.
All these years later, Rourke still has the VHS tape in his possession.
That shouldn’t be all that surprising, given that its discovery, which he calls “fortunate,” set him on the road to becoming a football player, beginning at age seven after his family had moved to Oakville, Ont. He was a quarterback from the start, already brimming with ambition and goals not bound by where he was growing up.
“I fell in love with this game,” said Rourke. “And just because I live in Canada shouldn’t be a reason I’m not able to play that game.”
Robyn and Larry recognized their son’s passion and talent for football as he grew and developed. Though Larry had never played football, it was by far his favourite sport. And it helped him understand the meaning of what coaches were telling him and Robyn over the years.
“Coaches would tell us that he’s got a tremendous football IQ,” said Larry. “We heard this over and over and over again, that it was unusual for someone at his age to have that IQ and to understand what’s going on and capture all this and process information.
“There’s a lot of tremendously talented kids athletically, but that was a differentiating factor for him.”
That football IQ is as real as ever today and is no small part of why the BC Lions were emboldened to name him their starting quarterback this off-season, after just three appearances during his rookie season in 2021.
There’s a long-held belief in the CFL that even the best young quarterbacks take two to three years to “get it.” That’s why experience is at such a premium at the position and why, if you’re going to roll with a young quarterback, you best at least back him up and challenge him with a proven veteran.
But the Lions did something far bolder and, frankly, rare in the CFL these days.
They trusted their instincts and evaluations in deciding that Rourke was ready for the No. 1 job. That kind of thing happens in the NFL a lot, where teams are developing the best quarterback prospects on the planet. It’s always a matter of when a top prospect will start, not if.
But in the CFL, unless it’s a proven veteran, a quarterback depth chart is almost always established by competition, either in practice or games.
The Lions told the veteran quarterbacks they spoke with during the off-season there would be no competition. They were all in on Rourke as their unquestioned No. 1 quarterback.
“There was no thinking, ‘Should I do this, should I not?’,” said Rick Campbell, B.C.’s head coach and co-general manager. “It’s one of those things that just felt like the right thing to do. I didn’t look at it as ‘God, I hope this works out.’ I was definitely comfortable with him being No. 1.”
Part of what helped Rourke make such a strong impression on the Lions’ brass is that having to adapt to a new environment and level of competition was hardly new to him.
Like a lot of Canadians who aspire to greatness in football, Rourke needed the maturity to take control of his own journey. He left Holy Trinity in Oakville, Ont. for his final year of high school in Alabama, along with Robyn and younger brother, Kurtis, who enrolled in the same school for a year. (Kurtis returned to finish high school in Ontario and then followed his brother to the Ohio University, where he will be a redshirt junior quarterback this season.)
When that didn’t lead to a Division I scholarship, Rourke enrolled at Fort Scott Community College in Fort Scott, Kansas, where his one season earned him a scholarship to the Ohio University,. He then nailed down the starting quarterback role with the Bobcats during his first season in 2017, which ended with Ohio’s first of three bowl game victories during his tenure there.
So, moving to a new environment where he would have to pick things up quickly was nothing new for him.
Campbell recognized that in the Lions’ 2021 season opener when Rourke handled himself calmly and coolly after learning of his first CFL start just minutes before kickoff in Saskatchewan. And he certainly saw it in the Lions’ 2022 season opener, a shocking 59-15 win over the Edmonton Elks in front of a huge home crowd on June 11 that turned into Rourke’s coming-out party.
Completing 26 of 29 passes for 282 yards, three touchdowns through the air and two more on the ground was undoubtedly the greatest performance by a Canadian quarterback since Russ Jackson retired in 1969.
Rourke makes his second start of the season for the Lions when they host the Toronto Argonauts on Saturday night (10 p.m. ET, TSN).
“What happened [against Edmonton] is not going to happen every week, but the way he plays is not surprising to any of us that have been around him,” said Campbell.
There had certainly been times in his life where Rourke had faced disappointment, – such as when he left high school without a single NCAA Division I offer.
But in the CFL, a league not known for rolling out the red carpet for Canadian quarterback prospects, the Lions didn’t need to be sold.
Understanding why, beyond football IQ, begins with recognizing Rourke’s talent as perhaps the best quarterback to come out of the NCAA’s Mid-American Conference since Ben Roethlisberger played at Miami of Ohio from 2000 to 2003.
And unlike most NCAA quarterbacks, Rourke arrived in B.C. having played the three-down game until age 17 and was familiar with some of the league’s personnel.
“I think it helped him that he knew the CFL game … it wasn’t the American guy who knows nothing about the CFL except that Warren Moon played in it,” said Campbell. “That helped his cause.”
There is one other thing that worked in Rourke’s favour when it comes to his opportunity in B.C. – circumstance.
Drafted in 2020 by the Lions with the 15th overall pick of the CFL Draft, he relocated to B.C. despite there being no season, where he was able to stay in close contact with his coaches while diving into his playbook.
The next season, an elbow injury to Michael Reilly allowed Rourke most of the precious first-team practice reps, particularly during the first 10 weeks of the season, where he was able to develop as a quarterback and a team leader while demonstrating to his coaching staff how close he was to being ready.
“We got to see him run practice, run the huddle, do all those things,” said Campbell. “Now, practice isn’t a game, but it gives you an insight of how we work, how he works with the players.”
To the outside world, the big news wasn’t that the Lions had just anointed a 23-year-old coming off his rookie season their starting quarterback. It was that they’d bestowed the honour on a Canadian.
The subject of Canadians playing quarterback in the CFL is not a simple one, and opinions differ on why no one has come close to living up to the standard set by Jackson more than half a century ago.
In fact, of the few Canadian quarterbacks who have played over the past 25 years, none have held starting jobs for more than a handful of games at a time. That alone makes Rourke unique.
Understandably, the narrative of Rourke as the “next one” grew dramatically after the win over Edmonton. The historical comparisons started to roll, and the excitement grew to another level.
All of which creates a balancing act for Rourke, who is proud of his roots and his country but doesn’t want to be defined by them.
“The fact that I’m Canadian is never going to change. It’s a fact about me,” Rourke said. “And I understand the distinctions people make with Canadian quarterbacks. Hopefully when it comes to the media and the distinctions people make with Canadian quarterbacks, [in the future] that’s not something we’re talking about.
“At the end of the day my priority is with the Lions and winning the next game. But in the grand scheme of things, when my career is all said and done, if it’s easier for Canadians to play football – in either the CFL or NFL – because of people like myself and are able to have success then that’s a great thing.”
Of course, that the only way to make Canadian quarterbacks less of a storyline is to have more of them. But to inspire more of them, it helps to have a star, someone to demonstrate what is possible, with the potential to open doors for others and inspire the next generation.
Many believe that player may have finally arrived.
“If Nathan Rourke becomes a star in the league, every kid playing amateur football at that position will start to believe that anything is possible,” said TSN game analyst Glen Suitor, who hasn’t been shy noting the significance of Rourke’s arrival. “That will lead, over time, to more kids wanting to play the position, which will lead to greater competition, which will lead to more Nathan Rourkes.”
Though CFL teams have long believed that a star Canadian quarterback would be a marketing dream, seizing that potential has always relied on putting the right player under centre.
Anyone who doubts that’s what happened in B.C. needs to go back and watch Rourke’s Week 1 performance against the Elks.
“I think everyone [in the organization] respects it and thinks it’s neat, but none of our decision making was about if the quarterbacks are Canadian or not,” said Campbell. “I understand it’s a big deal, I’m not dismissing it. But that had zero factor in our decision making with Nathan. We just thought he was the best guy, and he gave us the best chance to win. And that’s it.
“And I think that’s how our players think of it. I don’t think they really care, which is the ultimate compliment.”