The B.C. Lions are on the precipice of reaching the Grey Cup for the first time in over a decade and they have a single offseason move to thank for it — a decision not made by any in the front office.
When veteran quarterback Michael Reilly announced his retirement from the CFL in January after 11 remarkable seasons, the future Hall of Famer opened up one of the most exciting chapters in the franchise’s nearly seven decades of existence. This was now Nathan Rourke’s team.
The passing of the torch came with no ceremony or rousing farewell speech. In fact, the two quarterbacks have not spoken since the end of the 2021 campaign, though Rourke still feels the impact of the season he spent as Reilly’s understudy ahead of Sunday’s West Final.
“Unfortunately, I haven’t heard from him,” Rourke told the media on Saturday. “I sent him a message after I heard the news that he was going to retire and, obviously, nothing but respect for him. He did so much for me in terms of being able to set an example of what it needs to be like to be able to lead a football team and to be prepared each week.”
“Certainly, I would’ve liked to have heard from him but, yeah, I haven’t heard from him. I’m sure he’s moving on to bigger and better things, he’s got family and he’s got a new job and all that different stuff.”
In his first season at the helm, the young Canadian sensation has gone 9-2 through 11 total starts — posting the same number of victories as his predecessor did in two full seasons in Vancouver. He has transformed the Lions into legitimate contenders, despite a major injury derailing his early record-setting pace.
Few would have predicted that the 24-year-old would rocket to stardom so quickly when he was holding Reilly’s clipboard, but those in the Lions’ building had an inkling. As their 36-year-old starter gritted his way through a painful elbow injury that held him out of practice for most of the year, it was Rourke who took the majority of the snaps. It was a sneak peek at the future that made the upcoming transition all the more seamless.
“I could have never predicted the stats, but I could have predicted that he was going to be a really good quarterback and a really good player that we were going to be able to win with,” head coach Rick Campbell noted.
“We’re not shocked by the whole thing but it’s fun to see it in action. When we said in the offseason that he was going to be the starter and it wasn’t a competition, that didn’t keep me up at night. I thought we were in a good situation, but you needed to see it in action and see it week by week and I’m glad he proved us right.”
There is little doubt that a legend of the game like Reilly would have seen those signs as well, though fans may never know how much it influenced his decision to finally rest his weary body after a season in which he led the CFL in passing yards. Though his contract may have been cumbersome, few would have balked had he continued to play, squeezing the last drop out of a career like so many others have.
Instead, a B.C. offence that is otherwise unchanged has reached new heights since his departure, flourishing with Rourke’s quick release and golden arm. The return to relevance that was promised to accompany Reilly’s mega-deal has instead come at the hands of a second-round pick making 80k a year.
None of that is to blame Reilly wholesale for the team’s failings during his era. He spent much of his second go-around with the team that brought him into the CFL battered, bruised, and on his back. Though Rourke’s style of play has kept him upright more often, it is in that aspect of the game that perhaps Reilly’s legacy lingers most.
When Rourke faces off against the vaunted Blue Bombers in the biggest game of his life, he’ll do so less than three months removed from surgery. As it was in the West Semi-Final, the pain and swelling will be considerable. The defence will show no mercy.
It is a reality of his first season as the starter that Rourke relishes in a way that only a player like him can.
“I’m glad that all those things happened because I think in the grand scheme things it’s going to give me a fresh perspective,” he said of his injury. “I certainly feel a lot more grateful to be here than I might have if I didn’t have that injury and certainly feel a lot more purpose to be able to play for my teammates and all that kind of stuff.”
The young Canadian’s focused work ethic and relentless drive are unique to him, but it will be difficult not to see shades of Reilly when he steps out in the snow at IG Field to absorb more punishment for his team. The Central Washington product made a career out of taking a beating without complaint, personifying toughness with a team-first mentality.
Rourke, who has never before dealt with a major injury in-season before, has done the same. Whether by imitation or osmosis, the persona of his predecessor seems to leak through every time he picks his injured body off the ground after delivering a throw. You can see a glimmer of it in each press conference, shielding himself from prying questions with humour — though he leans a little goofier than Reilly’s dry wit.
Though he may not pick up the phone, you have to believe that the Lions’ most impactful retiree can see it too.
” I think he’s proud to see Nathan go do this thing,” Campbell said of his former quarterback. “I think he’s moved on from football and he’s doing his thing, but I know he’s excited for us. He knows a bunch of us and we’re friends with Mike and all that. I think he’s going to be watching back in Seattle, hopefully rooting for the team in orange.”