In a league where quarterbacking has long been considered the be-all and end-all of Grey Cup contention, the B.C. Lions are about to blaze a brave new trail.
With second-year man Nathan Rourke as the projected starter and the newly-signed Michael O’Connor as the likely backup, the team is jumping headfirst into a season with an almost unprecedented level of inexperience under centre.
Rarely has a team ever felt comfortable rolling with a pair of signal-callers who have combined for just 107 career pass attempts. Not since the days of position-less football that saw players regularly rotate through the quarterback spot has a team made their top two duo entirely Canadian.
It’s a headline-grabbing piece of history that could inspire a whole new generation of Canadian kids to get their fingers on the laces. Rourke and O’Connor have plenty of experience in that area as before they were breaking down doors for Canadian quarterbacks as a tandem, O’Connor was paving the way for the man above him on the depth chart.
“I’ve been following Mike’s career for a very long time. He was a guy that when I was — I don’t wanna date you too much, Mike — but just before high school, I was aware of Mike,” Rourke said with a smile during a joint media appearance on Wednesday. “He was a guy that had gone down to the States, gone down to high school and he had gone on a path that I had wanted to go down myself.”
In many ways, the two quarterbacks have been linked since long before they ever met or sported the same team colours. It was a teenage O’Connor’s success as a Canadian transplant at the prestigious IMG Academy — where he would become ESPN’s sixth-ranked quarterback recruit and earn a scholarship to Penn State — that pushed Rourke to move to Alabama for his own senior season at Edgewood Academy.
Even as O’Connor transferred back north to UBC, Rourke kept track of the Vanier Cup winner as he battled his own way through the junior college ranks to the University of Ohio, where he would win the Cornish Trophy in back-to-back years as the NCAA’s top Canadian. In 2019, Rourke took note when O’Connor was selected 20th overall in the CFL Draft. A year later, he would best him by going 15th.
At one point or another, both have been touted as the next great Canadian quarterback, the prophesized chosen one not seen since the retirement of Russ Jackson. Right now, they are the only two homegrown passers in the league, about to make quarterback a ratio position for the first time ever.
“I think that’s what’s great about this opportunity that we have with the Lions, they really feel like they’re putting the two best players on the field. It’s not because they’re Canadian and it’s not because they’re not Canadian. It’s just because they’re the two best players and that’s what we’re chasing,” Rourke said.
“We’re hoping that there’s more in the league at some point and hopefully sometime soon, but the fact that we’re in the same room now speaks volumes to the organization, as well as hopefully the opportunities that Canadians at the position will get in the future. I’m excited to be somewhat of an ambassador to that.”
Ultimately the quality of their ambassadorship weighs heavy for the future of Canadian pivots in general. A stigma that has long hung over homegrown passers and diminished their numbers. That prejudice could be destroyed in one fell swoop if a pair of Canucks can catapult the Lions to relevance at bargain basement prices, prompting other teams to bet on promising Canadian youngsters.
The weight of that burden is not lost on either quarterback.
“I would say it’s definitely something you’re aware of, but you don’t really think about it or focus on it. Especially when it comes to the day-to-day work of being a quarterback in the CFL, you don’t really take that much time to reflect on the big picture. I feel like that’s something that maybe down the line, once I’m done playing football, I might have a little bit more to say about that or a little bit more of a holistic view,” O’Connor said of their potential long-term impact.
“It’s definitely exciting, but ultimately it will be remembered in terms of the wins and the losses, to be honest with you. I feel like that’s our focus right now. Because you want it to be remembered in a positive light, you want to make the right kind of history.”
Rourke echoed that sentiment, drawing parallels to his prior experience as a Canadian passer south of the border.
“It’s a lot like when I was in junior college. You’re trying to get a Division I scholarship, which is the bigger goal, but in the time being, what you need to do is you need to win. You need to have a good team so you get recruiters to be attracted to your program and to see your film and whatnot,” he explained.
“It’s the same thing here. It’s like there’s a bigger thing that we want to accomplish obviously, but the main priority right now is to win and to win championships, to have a good team and to lead the team.”
Both fully believe that it will take the two of them working together to accomplish either of those goals. While Rourke has been named starter, O’Connor has his own aspirations and he’ll have to deliver on them in a league that so often demands two quarterbacks to have success.
“When we were texting back and forth, that was the big theme. We’re here to win a Grey Cup and it’s gonna take both of us. We’re very much aware of that,” Rourke acknowledged.
A strong relationship between the pair allows them to be open and honest about that reality. While they once admired each other’s careers from afar, they’ve been training together for more than a year with North Vancouver kinesiologist and quarterback guru Rob Williams of SportCore Performance.
The friendship and competitive rapport they’ve established in those workouts should translate directly into the Lions’ QB room, but it has wider-reaching consequences as well. Both players now call the Lower Mainland their year-round home to maximize their offseason training, a marketing dream for the Lions.
Their home-grown signal-callers are already out doing community outreach, providing a prominent local face for fans — and aspiring players — to rally around. British Columbia’s next generation of young quarterbacks won’t just be inspired by Rourke and O’Connor on the field. Some will benefit from their mentorship off of it.
“Going out to some of those local high school practices, it kind of brings you back to when you were a little kid and on the field for the first couple years,” O’Connor said. “That’s something that I really enjoy doing, giving back to the next generation of players and staying involved in the game beyond just beyond just playing football.”
One way or another, the Lions’ raw twenty-somethings will shape the future of the quarterback position in Canada, from the grassroots to the professional level. It’s almost fitting that they’ll do it standing one behind the other.