Quarterbacks Nathan Rourke, Michael O’Connor and Tre Ford took different paths to B.C. Place last week, proving any route to the Canadian Football League can be the preferred one.
Their shared experience was the feel-good story within the feel-good story that was the Lions’ home opener.
Rourke went to high school in Ontario, did his senior year at an academy in Alabama, then on to junior college and a starring role at Ohio University. O’Connor played high school in Ontario, went to an academy in the U.S., red-shirted at Penn State and starred at UBC. Ford went the Canadian route wire to wire, and was last at Waterloo, where he won the Hec Crighton Trophy as the U Sports player of the year.
Their unique journeys left Football Canada president Jim Mullin feeling hopeful.
“What it says is, if you have the skill and the talent, they will find you. There is video everywhere now; hudl.com, YouTube, it’s all there. And in addition to that, there are combine numbers.
“The thing that was off the charts for Tre Ford were his combine numbers. The thing that’s very favourable for Michael O’Connor is his measurables, his size. And Nathan Rourke is different again. He’s got that lineage developed at Ohio. He’s one of the best quarterbacks to come out of the (Mid-American Conference), quite frankly, in the last two decades, and he certainly has the stats to back that up.”
It wasn’t always thus. A Canadian kid who wowed ‘em in western Canada could be a virtual unknown out east. And every American head coach who came north wanted an American kid, a comfortably proven commodity, under centre because he knew nothing about what was then CIAU ball in Canada.
“I was right on the cusp of the Internet so a lot of the things I did in western Canada went unnoticed by the vast majority of the country,” said former quarterback Greg Vavra, who spent time with Calgary, B.C. and Edmonton in the 1980s after winning a Vanier Cup with the U of Calgary Dinos. “And with respect to my (CFL) opportunity, when I was in places where there was an open-minded coach, things worked out very well for me and when I wasn’t, things didn’t work out as well. It’s just sort of a sign of the times. I think the kids have a better opportunity to expose their skill set to a wider variety of people. Every general manager and coach wants to win and if that Canadian quarterback gives them the opportunity to win, they’ll get playing time.”
That’s certainly the hope, and in fact the B.C. Lions are betting heavily on it, with Rourke starting and O’Connor backing up. Rourke looked fabulous against the Elks last week, much better than he’d been at the end of last season, when he helped the Lions to a 43-10 victory over Edmonton. He’s a great runner with a strong arm and a keen sense of the game. He was also aided by an offensive line that gave him solid protection. In turn, he offers them hope that if a defensive lineman slips a block, Rourke will somehow get away and allow everybody to watch the game film on Monday with their heads up and conscience clear.
“Whether he’s American or Canadian doesn’t matter, he’s an exciting player,” said former quarterback Jamie Bone, a Hec Crighton winner and two-time Vanier Cup champ at Western in the 1970s. “He’s just a nice player to watch. I watched him the other night and thought ‘wow, he’s really got it going on.’ He understands what’s happening, he’s got great escapability, eyes downfield, makes great decisions and is very accurate. Playing quarterback, it comes down to decision making and accuracy and he’s got both of those right now. He should be very confident going forward.”
Is it important that Rourke light it up week after week? Is that even possible? Hardly. There will be ups and downs. There will be development. He needs patience, as do the Lions.
“It’s never a straight line up,” said Bone. “There is always going to be something or someone to test your perseverance. I think Nathan is mentally tough enough to get through that. It’s the nature of the position, you’re going to have some tough days.”
And there will be some days when three of them are on the field, painting a pretty rosy picture of the development of the position in Canada.
“I think it may be attributable to the CFL’s Canadian quarterback development program, when they bring these young guys in before their senior year and let them experience a training camp,” said Vavra. “That might have something to do with it. And I just think you’re seeing some open-mindedness from the coaches and managers in the CFL and you’re seeing some young athletes who are arguably ready to play at that level. It’s a combination of things coming together to create a great fan experience in the CFL cities where these kids are playing.”
DAN’S WEEK 2 CFL PICKS
Montreal at Toronto
Thursday — 7:30 p.m. ET, Toronto by 3.5
The Argos were tough at home last year, look to have beefed up seriously in free agency, and get their season going against an obviously beatable opponent. Montreal’s running game took a hit with the loss of William Stanback. Toronto by 3.
Winnipeg at Ottawa
Friday — 7:30 p.m. ET, Winnipeg by 2.5
The Redblacks served notice in Winnipeg that they are much improved. QB Jeremiah Masoli has the necessary weapons on offence, the kicking game is solid, and Mike Benevides is making his mark on the defence. Ottawa by 3.
Calgary at Hamilton
Saturday — 6:30 p.m. ET, Hamilton by 1
Ticats QB Dane Evans took the blame for a week one loss in Regina and vowed to be better. His O line has to do the same, because he didn’t have near enough protection to stave off the Riders’ defence. Calgary looks like an up-and-down team this year. Hamilton by 5.
Saskatchewan at Edmonton
Saturday — 9:30 p.m. ET, Saskatchewan by 7.5
Edmonton was an absolute mess on defence in Vancouver, which is odd given Chris Jones’s pedigree. And Saskatchewan got more than enough offence in the second half to beat Hamilton. Looks like a tough start for the EE. Saskatchewan by 7.
Straight up: 2-2
Against the line: 0-4
Betting lines: covers.com
All games on TSN