His nationality being an issue is nothing new for BC Lions quarterback Nathan Rourke.
Rourke, who was born in Victoria and played three years of high school football in in Oakville, Ont., has faced plenty of questions about being a Canadian quarterback in the CFL since his surprise start last week in the BC Lions season-opening loss against the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
This is Rourke’s first professional season, but the Maple Leaf on his passport raised questions during his one year playing high school football in Alabama, and four years in U.S. colleges.
“I’ve done five years in the U.S. where literally what separated me from the next guy was me being a Canadian,” said the 23-year-old. “Some of the people down south didn’t fully understand what that meant because they hadn’t had a lot of interactions, especially in Alabama.
“That’s something that made me stand out for a bit. I think it was very difficult to be recruited or taken seriously down there. It’s something I have dealt with for a while. It’s not anything new. It’s not even new pressure I put on myself. It’s something that’s cool.”
Lions wide receiver Lemar Durant understands the stigmatism of being a Canadian in a skill position.
“Canadian quarterback or Canadian receiver coming in . . . they try to treat you almost like you’re not as good as an American guy,’ said Durant, who was born in Vancouver, played his high school football in Coquitlam, B.C., and attended Simon Fraser University. “You have a little bit extra to prove.
“He’s showing that he can play the game.”
Rourke said being a Canadian quarterback can have “a negative and positive” connotation but he praised the Lions for treating him no differently than any other player.
“I’ve never got any kind of indication that being a Canadian is a bad thing,” he said. “I know that historically that’s been the case in some situations for what ever reason but I’ve never got that here.
“I’ve been given a fair shot. I’ve been given the opportunity to compete for the second job. I’m very proud of the fact I was able to do so but I don’t feel like there was any special treatment toward an American or myself. I think it’s a testament to this organization just to have the best players on the field. I think all that other noise is extra stuff that we don’t need in this building. I’m proud to be part of this organization that thinks that way.”
An elbow injury to veteran Michael Reilly lit the flames for Rourke’s baptism of fire at Mosaic Stadium. The Lions fell behind 31-0 before Rourke helped mount a comeback that fell just short, with the Riders winning 33-29.
Rourke finished the night completing 10 of 18 passes for 199 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
One of his interceptions was returned for a touchdown. Rourke also connected with Lucky Whitehead for a 75-yard touchdown late in the second quarter which started the Lions comeback.
With Reilly still nursing a sore elbow, head coach Rick Campbell expects Rourke will be the starter when the Lions play the Calgary Stampeders Thursday at McMahon Stadium.
“Obviously I have to be better,” said Rourke. “We did some good things against a really good defence in a really tough environment. The first quarter and parts of the second quarter I still have a bitter taste in my mouth.
“That’s just motivation knowing the organization, the team, still believes in me. They know what I’m capable of. I’m really just focused on helping this team win.”
Reilly was impressed, but not surprised, by Rourke’s performance.
“I thought he did a tremendous job,” he said. “It was a challenging situation for him to play in his first start.
“I think he was very mentally prepared. The only real critique I had for him were just things you get through experience, which is what he got. Dealing with the crowed nose, dealing with the pressure they brought.”
Campbell like the poise and patience Rourke showed.
“I think it’s a good sign of things to come,” said Campbell. “If he can operate in that type of environment with the score the way it was, there is every reason to believe it’s only going to get better when we operate better as a football team in the first half of a game.”
Rourke played one year at Fort Scott Community College in Fort Scott, Kansas, before transferring to Ohio University.
In 39 games in three seasons with the Bobcats, the six-foot-two, 209-pound Rourke threw for 7,475 yards and 70 touchdowns. He also rushed for 2,639 yards and 49 touchdowns. He had a 25-14 record as a starter and led the team to three consecutive bowl victories.
Rourke twice won the Jon Cornish Trophy as the top Canadian football player in the NCAA.
The Lions selected Rourke 15th overall in the 2020 CFL Draft.
Durant spent time working out with Rourke over the winter. He likes the composure and confidence he has shown.
“He’s a really good dude,” said Durant. “He’s not the loudest person but when he needs to take command, he will. He showed he can be a good leader.
“Coming in as a rookie can be intimidating but he does a good job trying to control the huddle, making sure everyone is on the same page.”
Having had his first taste of CFL action, Rourke believes he’s better prepared to face the Stampeders.
“You can measure your expectations a little better,” he said. “Without any games under your belt there is a lot of uncertainty. Now you have a picture of what the speed is going to be like and what they are going to be showing you.
“There is going to be hiccups, whether I like it or not. There’s going to be stuff I haven’t seen. Experience is good. I didn’t think it was going to happen as quickly as it did but I’m thankful it has. The way things are turning out this year it’s good for me to be able to contribute if I need to.”