Morris: Kid Canada’s final farewell
Nathan Rourke says the two years he spent in the CFL as a quarterback with the BC Lions made it possible for him to pursue his dream of playing in the NFL.
After trying out for 12 NFL teams the 24-year-old from Victoria has decided to sign a contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“Just in terms of learning how to be professional and how to care about your business and prepare each week,” Rourke told media at the Lions training facility in Surrey, B.C., Tuesday. “Sometimes, in the NFL, you have guys who are drafted really young, in their early 20s. A lot of things have been handed to them.
“I’ve had the luxury of being here and learning from someone like (former quarterback) Michael Reilly and (retired receiver) Bryan Burnham, been able to see how they do it. I didn’t play right away and got to watch a little bit. I got to deal with you (the media) and how to navigate that. Those are just the things that are going to help me prepare for what might come in the future.”
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Playing in the NFL has long been a dream for Rourke. He was overlooked in the 2021 NFL draft after playing college football at Ohio University. Instead, Rourke signed with the Lions who selected him 15th overall in the 2021 CFL Draft.
“I’m very goal oriented and from an early age the goal was to be play in the NFL,” said Rourke, who wore a T-shirt with ‘Canadian To The Core’ on the front. “I didn’t have that opportunity out of college.
“I’m very grateful to have this stop here and be able to learn about the professional game and be able to develop and grow all the things that would have been tougher if I was in that (NFL) environment right away.”
It’s been a busy few weeks for Rourke.
He announced at the end of the CFL season he was going to pursue NFL opportunities. That led to him working out teams including the Cleveland Browns, New York Giants, Kansas City Chiefs, Cincinnati Bengals, L.A. Chargers, Las Vegas Raiders, Minnesota Vikings, Denver Broncos, Indianapolis Colts, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Arizona Cardinals before settling on the Jaguars.
He also found time to announce his engagement to his long-time girlfriend Emily.
Rourke said Jacksonville was on the top of his list from the beginning. Head coach Doug Pederson, a former NFL quarterback who won a Super Bowl as head coach with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2018, was one of the reasons.
“It was just the situation in the quarterback room,” said Rourke. “Jacksonville was one of the first teams that wanted to work me out and when I got there you kind of understood they were pretty high on me.
“Ultimately it came down to the opportunity for me to compete to be the No. 2 and to be one play away (from playing). That was big. Then the opportunity to work with coach Pederson and the rest of the staff is exciting as well.”
Another piece of the equation is former CFL quarterback Henry Burris, who serves as an offensive quality control coach with the Jaguars. Burris spent a brief period as an offensive consultant with the Lions this spring.
“It’s huge,” said Rourke. “We got the chance to know each other very briefly last off-season. He’s a guy that thinks highly of me and I think the world of him.
“I had a chance to speak with him when I was down there and he gave me some really good advice. I’ve been in contact with him throughout the process.”
Rourke had a storybook season in 2022. He led the Lions to a 8-1 record and was in contention for Most Outstanding Player honours before undergoing surgery in August to repair a Lisfranc injury in his foot.
The Lions finished second in the West with a 12-6 record and Rourke returned in time to led BC to a 30-16 win over the Calgary Stampeders in the Western Semi-Final. It was the Lions’ first home playoff game since 2016. The Lions lost to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers 28-20 in the Western Final.
The six-foot-two, 209-pound Rourke finished the year completing 255 of 324 passes for 3,349 yards, 25 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions. He also rushed for 304 yards and seven touchdowns.
His 78.7 passing percentage was the best in the league and his 25 touchdown passes were second only to the 37 thrown by Winnipeg’s Zach Collaros. He twice broke the record for most passing yards by a Canadian quarterback in a single game.
Despite missing half the season Rourke was named CFL’s Most Outstanding Canadian. His performance on the field, and approachable manner off, helped attracted fans to BC Place Stadium and he became a talking point around the league.
When announcing his decision to test the NFL market Rourke said he didn’t want to “just show up to get a T-shirt” and would only “go to a situation that makes sense.”
Sophomore Trevor Lawrence, the first player selected in the 2021 NFL draft, is currently Jacksonville’s starting quarterback. After struggling in his first season, Lawrence threw for 4,113 yards, 25 touchdowns and eight interceptions this year. Last weekend the 23-year-old led the Jaguars to a 31-30 comeback win over the Chargers in a wildcard playoff game.
C.J. Beathard, in his sixth NFL season and second with the Jaguars, is the backup. Beathard was a third-round pick of the San Francisco 49ers in 2017.
Rourke believes the Jaguars is the best situation for him.
“Being on a NFL team and getting NFL film, whether it’s pre-season or regular season, is really important to be able to solidify yourself as an NFL starter,” he said. “The goal right now is to be in a position where I’m a play away from playing.
“You never know what happens in the NFL. I’m not there to compete with (Lawrence). I’ll be there to support him next year. My job is to create a job for myself down there. Play well in the pre-season and a team could like you and you go from there.”
Rourke called his 2022 season with the Lions “super special” and he leaves with many fond memories.
“It’s a group I’m not going to forget anytime soon,” he said. “They’ve kind of raised my expectations in terms of what a professional locker room should be like, how you should feel about your teammates.
“This group has really set the precedent for me. Throughout my career I’m going to be looking at this group. This is where the bar is set.”
Rourke also praised the CFL fans.
“We have a lot of passionate fans in the CFL and I hope supporting Canadians in the CFL continues,” he said. “I’m just really grateful to have experienced that and it’s really special.”