While he may be the CFL’s anointed one, Nathan Rourke got no free ride in his playoff debut.
Playing in his first full game since recovering from a Lisfranc sprain on his right foot, the B.C. Lions’ homegrown quarterbacking sensation was punished by the Calgary Stampeders’ defence in the West Semi-Final. The surgically repaired foot did not always reward him for his patience in the pocket and he appeared in visible discomfort at times, with a noticeable limp present by the end of the game.
None of it was enough to stop him from willing his team to a 30-16 victory in their first home playoff game since 2016.
“We came out of it with a win, that was the most satisfying part to me,” an unusually jovial Rourke told reporters post-game. “I mean, it wasn’t pretty, but we got it done and that’s what playoffs are all about.”
There was no hiding that his injury was not yet fully healed in the two-and-a-half months since the major medical procedure, but Rourke made do. At halftime, the injured foot received a full spatting of medical tape, a decision that the quarterback played off as an aesthetic one.
“Honestly, it was more of a look thing. You know how I am about that,” he quipped. “You look good, you play good and 3DownNation, I didn’t want them coming after me saying I ain’t got no swag.”
Stylish or not, the extra padding kept Rourke upright for the duration of the game. He finished 22-of-30 (73.3 percent) for 321 yards and two touchdowns — a pedestrian outing by his early season standards but particularly impressive given the circumstances.
“I’ve been the number one Nathan Rourke fan for the last three years and he’s going to approach it — playoff, preseason, regular season — he’s going to have that same mentality. You just want to play,” Lions’ head coach Rick Campbell said of the performance.
“He’s definitely hurting, I will say that, but I don’t think he’s injured. It’s more about being sore.”
Rourke was evasive regarding the status of the foot post-game, noting that it felt how he expected it to after completing his first full sixty minutes of action since suffering the injury against Saskatchewan on August 19. Practice reps and a one quarter tune-up against Winnipeg in the regular season finale are one thing, stepping up in the pocket with the season on the line is another.
According to veteran Stampeders’ quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, who came off the bench in an attempt to spark a fourth-quarter comeback, the effect that the injury had on his opponent was noticeable but did not diminish his performance.
“I wanted to see if he looked like what he was going to look like [in warmup] and he was jumping off his back foot and throwing the ball like Patrick Mahomes,” Mitchell said. “The guy’s got a very live arm, that can help some lower body ailments, but he’s a hell of an athlete. He takes care of his body and he’ll stay ready. Very impressed by what he did tonight.”
Rourke was slightly more critical of his own effort, noting that there are still lingering mechanical issues from his time away that need to be rectified.
“Obviously, during the course of the game, I’m not exactly looking at that too much, I’m looking more at scheme things. I’ll watch the film and there are some throws that I missed,” he said. “We’ll figure that out and make sure that I’m making those throws come next week.”
Those errors weren’t on Mitchell’s mind when the future Hall of Famer went to shake the young quarterback’s hand after the final whistle and congratulate him on his win.
“I just told him to go get him one. He deserves it. He’s earned it,” Mitchell explained, expressing deep respect for Rourke’s decision to play through injury despite a potential NFL payday awaiting him in the offseason.
“I’m sure there was talk from plenty of people telling him to not come back and I don’t think anybody would have said anything differently to him if he didn’t come back to make sure he was healthy for next year and whatever opportunity he may have.”
The road for Rourke to get himself the Grey Cup trophy that Mitchell believes he has earned now travels through Winnipeg, where the two-time defending champion Bombers stand as the only hurdle that the young quarterback has so far failed to clear. The environment at IG Field is expected to be frigid and hostile, but the first of those elements may actually work in the young Canadian’s favour as he takes on the league’s best team.
“Hopefully, if it’s numb then I can’t feel it, right?” Rourke joked regarding his foot.
“I think it’s going to be good to have another week. We’re practicing outside, it’s a little bit colder here in B.C. and I can kind of get used to the elements a little bit because it’s going to be cold, it’s going to be loud, it’s going to be a hostile environment. There’s all those things so I’ve got to be ready for that kind of stuff. For me, healing is just going to be part of that process but I look forward to it.”
The constant chatter surrounding the 24-year-old’s unlikely return to play and the status of his injury will not quiet ahead of the West Final, with many remaining unconvinced surrounding the foot’s stability. That noise has little effect on the league’s likely Most Outstanding Canadian honouree.
After throwing a touchdown pass to Alexander Hollins in the second quarter on Sunday — his first since returning to the field — Rourke peeled himself off the turf after absorbing a hellacious hit and trotted to the sideline. Once there, he celebrated by tapping toes with backup Antonio Pipkin, a simple but clear message.
“We’re highlighting my best attribute,” Rourke grinned.