At the lowest point of his recovery, completely barred from team activities by doctors as he recovered from surgery, Nathan Rourke could hardly bear to think about the sport that has dominated his life since he was a teenager.
“For a good second there, I was trying to forget about football and I was trying to distract myself with friends and family and their support,” the B.C. Lions franchise quarterback told the media this week.
“My girlfriend spent the first week and a half that I was on the couch with me, which was really good. I watched a lot of things on the internet because there were days when you don’t want to even think about it. I just went on movie marathons.”
That admission of sullen days spent couch-surfing in the aftermath of his devastating Lisfranc sprain offers a rare glimpse into the humanity of a young player who has achieved near-mythic status in his first season as a starter. Even the next great Canadian quarterback has bad days, he just handles his a little differently.
Rather than wallow indefinitely in binge-watching quicksand as most reasonable mortals might, Rourke pulled himself out. When the surgery on his right foot required him to be non-weight-bearing for an extended period, he took to the water to keep up his cardio. Swimming, apparently, is the exception to medically imposed rest.
At every step of the recovery process, Rourke found himself ahead of what many armchair physicians projected to be a reasonable timeline. Now, just nine weeks post-op, he’s poised to play in his first game since suffering the injury on August 19 — a stunning comeback from a medical diagnosis that often requires three-to-six months of rehab.
It seems that all the world’s streaming services put together couldn’t offer a content catalogue interesting enough to keep Rourke satisfied.
“Nah,” he grinned when asked if he’d seen anything good while sidelined. “There’s a lot of garbage out there.”
With his film reviews more scathing than Roger Ebert, Rourke is unlikely to divulge what exactly kept him entertained during those dreary days. Teammates, however, have not been shy in sharing what silver screen hero they believe he has morphed into.
“To see how he’s attacked his rehab and how he’s feeling it, it’s looking like you don’t even see a limp on him,” raved top receiver Dominique Rhymes. “I think he’s Superman or something. Like, he’s different.”
That’s certainly not the first time that the Lions’ homegrown gunslinger has earned comparisons to Clark Kent’s alter-ego, given his historic start to the season. At the time of his injury, Rourke was on pace to shatter a bevy of CFL records and still sits first in the league for completion percentage (79.2), second in passing touchdowns (25), and seventh in yardage (3,281) despite playing just nine games.
What remains to be seen is if the weeks off recovering have allowed any rust to build up on Rourke’s golden throwing arm, something the entire CFL playoff picture is waiting breathlessly to find out during the otherwise meaningless Week 21 slate. Rourke is scheduled to start against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers on Friday night and will play roughly a quarter of the action in order to get primed for the Lions’ West Semi-Final clash in two Sundays’ time at BC Place.
“We’ve talked about it over the weeks and we could go the route of just letting him play in the playoff game but the key is he’s going to feel better getting back out there and getting some live action and just getting back to it,” Lions head coach Rick Campbell explained. “That’s all part of this whole path back to playing and so we’ll get him in there and get him some work in and then go from there.”
Rourke agrees with that assessment, calling the chance to get his injured foot wet in the regular-season finale “a bonus” in terms of his recovery. Those who have watched him in practice expect to see much the same dynamic offensive weapon in his playoff tuneup as the quarterback showed himself to be prior to surgery.
“He’s picked up where he left off,” said receiver Lucky Whitehead, who is also scheduled to return from injury this week. “He’s got the same arm strength and still smart with his decision-making. I think the timing and where he left off, he’s going to be very comfortable.”
As is his way, Rourke is making no such grandiose predictions. He readily admits that he is not yet running at full capacity and is focused on ensuring that any nagging discomfort will not alter his finely tuned mechanics, even bringing his offseason trainer and renowned kinesiologist Rob Williams in to watch practice ahead of his return.
“Obviously, I feel like I’m not there quite yet with the physical aspect of it and throwing and stuff like that,” he acknowledged. “I was fortunate that Rob was there today kind of helping me out, to see what he saw and kind of get a second opinion on that.”
“I think that’s going to come in with just with reps and that’s why this week is important. That’s why playing in the game is going to be important, that’s why the week of prep for the playoff game is going to be important.”
It won’t be the only part of his game that’s different. While the dual-threat pivot is comfortable in his ability to navigate the pocket and escape if necessary, he’s not going to be the same guy who rushed for 304 yards and seven touchdowns early in the year.
“I’m not running any quarterback runs at this point,” Rourke stated flatly.
To some, that is a red flag in and of itself. While Rourke’s return is an undeniable boost to the Lions’ Grey Cup chances, there is no question that fans will be holding their breath every time he takes a snap, the risk of re-injury after a rushed return lingering in the back of their minds.
The quarterback is putting a lot on the line by getting back on the field so fast, particularly given the effect any setback would have on the NFL windfall many see on his horizon. It is a delicate balance between short-term results and long-term success that he appears cognizant of, yet determined to push out of his thought process.
“I’m just taking it day by day and not worrying too much about the bigger picture,” Rourke deflected. “That’s kind of how I’ve taken this entire season, not looking too forward too far in the future. Just trying to figure out how am I feeling today and if I can do stuff today then I don’t think it’s gonna hurt to do anything more. But then I also know where the line is.”
“I think that’s the best thing to do for the football team and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
That dedication to the collective from their leader has not been lost on the Lions. Since Rourke went down, they’ve scratched and clawed to remain competitive and secure the second seed in the West Division, holding out hope for a miracle. Their superhuman signal-caller has put himself through the wringer to get them one and they aren’t going to let it be for naught.
“Just to see him out there smiling, man, it just feels good because he worked so hard,” Rhymes said.
“Every time he’s out there, every time he throws me the ball, I’m gonna do whatever I can to make a play for him because he’s just that type of guy you want to make plays for.”