O’Leary: Lions’ faith in Rourke rewarded

VANCOUVER — The stereotypes around us as Canadians are plentiful and for the most part, complimentary.

We’re polite, humble, funny. We sometimes hold doors too long for others. We share a knowing glance with a stranger in the midst of a scene being made in public. The no-you-go-first standoff as two people exit an elevator can sometimes stretch to the point that the doors start to give up, forcing one courteous person’s foot forward at the last minute. Apologies, of course, abound.

So when Neil McEvoy reflects on the wondrous season that Nathan Rourke and the BC Lions have had, and the doubt that that once hovered over the team’s decision to make him their starting quarterback, the reasoning is surprising.

“The only caveat to all this is that he’s Canadian,” McEvoy, the BC Lions’ co-general manager and director of football operations said on Wednesday, as his team began its prep for Sunday’s Western Final in Winnipeg.

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“If he were an American player — if he were the Maier kid in Calgary — there would have been no questions asked. We like the kid, he plays good. He played the University of Ohio, went to high school in the States. Everyone would have said, ‘Great, they found another quarterback.’ But we were questioning ourselves as Canadians because he was a Canadian.

“At the end of the day we saw him as a quarterback that could play. He was exactly what we thought he was going to be.”

McEvoy’s opinion is a worthwhile one. A Surrey, BC native, he’s been with the Lions since 1995, working his way up from a ticket sales representative, eventually into football operations. In 2021, he and Lions head coach Rick Campbell were named co-GMs of the team.

In his time with the Lions he’s seen the likes of Dave Dickenson, Casey Printers, Jarious Jackson, Buck Pierce, Travis Lulay, Michael Reilly and eventually, Rourke take the QB torch from their respective predecessor. To him, Rourke’s progression into the starting job was as natural as any other Lions player that’s been handed the keys to the Black and Orange car.

“They all started behind somebody. We got no questions at that point when we said that Travis Lulay is going to be our quarterback. ‘OK great, should be fine,'” McEvoy said.

“We were questioning ourselves. We got questioned because of the fact that he’s Canadian.”

It’s put to him, that isn’t that in itself such a Canadian thing? CFL fans across the country have yearned for the next Russ Jackson since Jackson walked off of the field in 1969. When Reilly announced his retirement in the off-season, the Lions gave those fans what they wanted and got what we’ll politely call guarded optimism.

Would Rourke be good enough? Was this a publicity stunt?

McEvoy laughed.

“It’s a very Canadian thing to do, to second guess yourself,” he said.


Rick Campbell remembers Rourke working at the Lions’ practice facility in 2020, after the team had taken him 15th overall in the CFL Draft. There would be no season that year, but Rourke wanted to work and improve to be ready for when the league got back on the field.

He was confident in what he and McEvoy were working with: A three-year starter from Ohio University that put up 7,475 passing yards and 70 touchdowns through 39 games, that ran for 2,639 yards and 49 touchdowns. He led the Bobcats to three consecutive bowl game wins and was named the MVP of the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in 2020.

“I couldn’t have predicted the stats or those types of things,” Campbell said on Wednesday, after his team’s walkthrough. “But did I think he was going to be a good quarterback and a good player in this league? Absolutely.”

He and McEvoy were more impressed in 2021, when Rourke took the bulk of first-team reps for the season while Reilly dealt with an elbow injury. It didn’t give them the same evidence as in-game film would, but it was close. While Reilly played the majority of the Lions games in 2021, once they were eliminated from playoff contention, Rourke was given the start in the season finale against the Edmonton Elks.

Rourke was 23-34 for 359 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions in a 43-10 Lions win. To just about anyone watching, it was a throwaway game between a pair of non-playoff teams, closing their seasons out. McEvoy and Campbell saw a glimpse of their future.

“The last game of (2021) against Edmonton, I was more nervous about that game because we didn’t know what we had and we wanted to end the year on a good note,” McEvoy said.

His nerves were long gone by the final buzzer.

The duo made their quarterbacking decision upon Reilly’s retirement and were fully confident in it. The outside noise, they felt, would fade away once the season started. They didn’t see the history-making accomplishments, or a string of blowout wins to start the season. Rourke catapulting himself into the MOP conversation prior to his Week 11 Lisfranc sprain was a surprise across the board. Perhaps in a very Canadian way, McEvoy and Campbell — himself a Canadian citizen since 2012 — simply thought they’d be fine with Rourke as their starter.

“I would have been surprised the other way,” Campbell said, had things not worked out with Rourke.

Quarterbacks make and break GMs. Good ones keep you employed. Great ones make you look like a genius. A disappointment at the position can cost a GM their job.

As the Lions head into their first Western Final since 2016 and chase their first Grey Cup appearance since 2011, there isn’t a sense of vindication in the front office.

“It’s not (a feeling of) I told you so, it’s…you try to make good decisions and have good football players,” Campbell said.

“(Rourke) was one of the easier decisions. Sometimes you don’t know. I couldn’t have predicted his stats and all that stuff but I was pretty, pretty confident that he was going to do good things.”

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