A look into Nathan Rourke’s road to recovery
Nathan Rourke has been the talk across the country since it was announced he’d be making a return to the field in 2022 following his injury in Week 11.
All of that chatter was well deserved, of course, as the Canadian sensation took the league by storm and was having one of the best seasons that we’ve seen from a quarterback in many years.
And now Rourke is poised to make the first playoff start of his young career this Sunday.
But what about what happened in between his injury and getting back on the field? The physical rehab was one thing, as Rourke worked hard to re-gain mobility in his foot, but sitting on the sidelines and watching his teammates continue the season without him was difficult for the 24-year-old.
“It was very challenging,” he said. “There was good days, there was bad days. There were days where it was harder than others. For the reasons you just said, watching is hard. I spent the whole last year watching as backup. And finally, I felt like I had gotten an opportunity to play and the team was winning, and that was great to see. But you don’t really feel part of the team when you’re not there, right?”
In a conversation after the Lions final practice of the week in BC Place, Rourke talked about the mental hurdles, not just the physical ones, that he had to overcome in his road to recovery along with how he returned to the field in time for his team’s Western Semi-Final matchup against the Calgary Stampeders. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Kristina Costabile: How did you feel after last week’s game? How was your foot feeling?
Nathan Rourke: I think the thing right now, the challenging part is that you have to walk on the foot, you have to move, you have to jump off the field on the foot. You have to do the warm up that you do as a team, that’s all on the foot. So it’s difficult to maintain the balance between doing what I need to do and stuff that I don’t really have to do, but like to do, you know? That’s a bit of a challenge. I mean, it’s going to be sore afterwards, it’s sore now, but it’s just about maintaining that and try to do the best I can be fresh. Come Sunday, because we have a couple days off, and I’ll take full advantage of that, I’ve no doubt that I’ll be fine going into the game.
KC: Looking back to the game when you were injured in Week 11, did you know immediately it was going to be bad?
NR: My mind didn’t immediately go to that place. I’ve been very lucky throughout my career. I haven’t had many serious injuries. But I did know that the feeling that I felt my foot was different than I had felt before. It’s kind of like a sliding feeling in my foot where my big toe felt like it was kind of distanced from the rest of my foot. I kind of felt that feeling and I thought I had broken it at first. And so I looked at it and it looked like it was fine. I thought it was like an ankle or something like that. Then I tried to walk on it and I couldn’t put any pressure on it. It was more of a feeling I hadn’t felt before.
KC: So you have surgery, what did the next few weeks after that look like for you?
NR: We started rehab as soon as possible. But there’s only so much that we could do for the first two weeks that I was in a splint. For two weeks I just had to stay at home and elevate (my foot). That was really all I could do. And so it wasn’t fun, it was very boring to be sitting on a couch. I was thankful because my girlfriend flew in and was there for the first week. I was just the worst to be around because I was very miserable [smiles]. A lot of just laying around and getting other people to do stuff for you.
KC: What did you do while you were sitting around on the couch for those two weeks? Watch Netflix?
NR: We watched the rest of Stranger Things because I hadn’t finished that yet. I got into Rick and Morty. I started playing Zelda: Breath of the Wild on the Nintendo Switch. That was really cool, that captivated me. I’m not a video game guy at all. I don’t have a TV in my basement apartment. And for me to get hooked into a video game like that was kind of the right time because I wouldn’t do it any other time.
KC: What were you doing rehab-wise when you could start moving your foot?
NR: Immediately after it was just more of just trying to restore range of motion. Swelling was a big thing. As soon as I could, I got out of the splint after two weeks, and then maybe three or four weeks out, I started swimming. I went to the pool quite often just to try to maintain some aerobic fitness. But also because it wasn’t like riding the bike where my foot was (pointed) down. They wanted to elevate it as much as possible and in the pool, your foot’s kind of just flat. It was a really great alternative and worked out really well. I’ve kept that up even when I’ve been able to come back and play.
KC: What did you do to make sure that you were able to come back a bit sooner than the original timeline of recovery?
NR: The intent was always to try to come back within 10 to 12 weeks. Obviously 10 weeks being this week (playoffs). It was always a maybe for the playoffs, maybe for the season, all of that stuff. Then the way that it was progressing, the way that I wasn’t feeling the pain that they may have been expecting as we went along. They kept saying, ‘alright, maybe Winnipeg is an option. Maybe we can start thinking about that.’ When they did the surgery, they put a plate in there for a little bit of extra stability in hopes that I would be able to come back and that would help accelerate the process. It ended up just being a collaborative thing where obviously I was trying to do all the things I could do, but that was the plan from the get go.
KC: Do you feel like there was a mental hurdle you had to go through throughout this process? You were having an excellent season and then all of a sudden you’re sitting on the couch watching Netflix instead of being out there with your teammates, that had to be tough.
NR: Yeah, of course. It was very challenging. There was good days, there was bad days. There were days where it was harder than others. For the reasons you just said, watching is hard. I spent the whole last year watching as backup. And finally, I felt like I had gotten an opportunity to play and the team was winning, and that was great to see. But you don’t really feel part of the team when you’re not there, right? So I saw our sports psychologist, Dr. Zarina. I saw her, talked to her on a weekly basis. I was trying to make sure I was doing all the right things, staying motivated. Because I think that mentally, that’s a good chunk of it in your recovery process is just how you feel mentally. We tried to make sure that was fine. It was definitely difficult. I had to rely on other people. I’m not used to doing that, I want to do stuff myself. And wherever I was going, especially I was on crutches, people had to carry stuff for me, they’d open doors for me. Just a bunch of stuff I didn’t like, that just constantly reminded me of my injury. That was just difficult and new and something I hadn’t dealt with before. So it was definitely tough.
KC: We’d see you on the sidelines wearing the headset during games, but what else were you doing to stay connected if you couldn’t be in the huddle with your team?
NR: I was trying to come to the facilities as much as I could and tried to go to meetings and try to be around the guys. Be around during practice and take mental reps, watch the film and do all that stuff. Maybe not as much as I would have, but definitely tried to do my best to feel like I was doing something and being a part of what everyone else was working towards.
KC: I want to ask you about mental reps, you hear that they are really important, even if you don’t have an injury. What are your thoughts on them?
NR: I think, especially in football, they’re so important. I don’t think they’re necessarily better than the actual reps themselves, but they’re the next best thing to try to put yourself in that position as best you can, especially as a quarterback. I think just be able to make the reads to make sure that your feet are all there. Obviously, if you’re not making the throw, that’s a big part of it. But if you’re going to the right place, you can be working on your mechanics in between drops and the foot work. It’s stuff that you can progress without even taking reps. That’s important.
KC: You’re getting ready for your first CFL playoff game, how are you feeling just two days ahead of the big game?
NR: I’m excited. I’m excited to get back out there and play a full game, first and foremost. Home games are always fun. I’m really excited that we had a chance to come back home. I got hurt at an away game and I wasn’t able to come back and play (at home). I like playing here. We get to play a really good opponent and play good team and to be in the playoffs is really cool and a testament to our team throughout these 18 games stretch. So I’m excited and looking forward to it.