Russ Jackson is still universally considered the greatest Canadian quarterback in CFL history but he seems ready to pass the torch to Nathan Rourke should the new face of the B.C. Lions continue the success he’s enjoyed this season.
“He seems to really have a knack for throwing the ball and getting rid of it in time — all the good things that you have to be able to do in terms of playing quarterback and have a good passing game,” Jackson told 3DownNation via telephone.
“I think he’s showing all those things. I think there’s a lot of development — you don’t become a top CFL quarterback in two games. I’m looking forward to the future. I think he’s got a lot of the talent that is necessary, but we have to see it develop.”
It’s been a long time since a Canadian quarterback became a star in the CFL. A number of promising passers have tried over the years — Gerry Dattilio, Greg Vavra, Giulio Caravatta, Andrew Buckley, Brandon Bridge — but ultimately fell short of becoming household names.
Rourke has been easily the best player in the CFL so far this season, completing 87.8 percent of his passes for 718 yards, seven touchdowns, and zero interceptions. He has also carried the ball ten times for 93 yards and two touchdowns on a combination of scrambles and designed runs.
Jackson is pleased to see a promising young Canadian quarterback having so much success in the CFL, even if he has only started four career games.
“I think it’s great. I don’t look at him chasing my legacy or anything — there have been a lot of awfully good Canadian quarterbacks, though some of them didn’t get the opportunity to play in the CFL. I think that he’s off to the right start,” said Jackson
“It’s too early to starting saying, ‘Oh, you’ve got this or that.’ I think a quarterback develops more than just completing a lot of passes. I think you develop in the way that if you’re down six points in the last quarter and you’re down to your last drive, how are you going to manufacture a touchdown?”
Jackson threw for 24,593 yards, 185 touchdowns, and 124 interceptions over 166 games as a member of the Ottawa Rough Riders (1958-69). He was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player three times — the most ever by a Canadian player — and held virtually all of the league’s passing records among Canadian quarterbacks before the 2022 season got underway.
Rourke has only played two games but has already started chipping away at those records. He set a new single-game completion percentage record among Canadian quarterbacks in Week 1 (89.7 percent) and threw for a new single-game passing yards record among Canadian quarterbacks in Week 2 (436 yards).
The 24-year-old also tied Jackson’s record for most single-game touchdowns by a Canadian quarterback when he recorded five (three passing, two rushing) in Week 1. Jackson set the original record back on September 19, 1966 in a 49-21 win over Edmonton, more than three decades before Rourke was born in Victoria, B.C.
It doesn’t both Jackson to watch a young quarterback surpass his accomplishments — in fact, the prospect almost seems to excite him.
“I don’t mind. I passed a few along the way and I don’t expect to sit there forever and ever and be the top Canadian quarterback. There are gonna be people who come along and if Nathan goes ahead and breaks some of my records or surpasses my particular expertise at the position, fine and dandy! Then he can sit there and wait for someone else to come along,” said Jackson.
“I don’t think it’s written in stone that my particular career has to stand there forever and ever. It’s been there for quite a few years and a lot of that is some good Canadian quarterbacks never got the opportunity to play.”
One of the reasons Canadian quarterbacks have struggled to make an impact at the CFL level is a perceived bias from coaching and personnel staff in favour of American quarterbacks. Jackson believes such a bias still exists, even if it has dissipated over time.
“I think it’s going (away). Let’s face it — it’s the coaching and the general manager that decide who tries out for a team and who makes the team. I think that the American coaches in many ways over the last 50 years, maybe some of them didn’t think that the Canadian player could be as good as an American player. They felt the American player was trained better, especially at the quarterback position where you have so much you have to do in order to have a successful career.”
When asked what advice he’d share with Rourke, Jackson suggested that the young passer continue to focus on his development and block out the noise from the media.
“You can’t let the sportswriters and sportscasters make you into a great quarterback. You have to learn as you go along, you don’t know everything. You have to learn how to win those close, tough football games because they make the difference between winning a championship and not even getting to the playoffs. I think you have to take it one step at a time,” said Jackson.
“He’s had a couple of great games. Let’s see how it goes through the season and try and judge what development he’s had. There’s always room for improvement and you have to keep developing at that position in order to say you’re going to have a really successful career, which I would say is the next ten years.”
Jackson, 85, resides in Burlington, Ont. with his wife, Lois, and has season tickets to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.