At every turn of his young CFL career, B.C. Lions quarterback Nathan Rourke has managed to rise to the moment.
In front of a hostile West Final crowd in Winnipeg, that streak of excellence came to a decisive end.
“We didn’t get off to the start that we wanted to. I didn’t think it was necessarily anything that they were doing that was special, I thought that we were really kicking ourselves,” Rourke told reporters following his team’s 28-20 loss to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
“We had some breaks go our way early, which was great and we were able to stay in it, but it was just a little too late when we got into a rhythm. You just can’t do that against a good team like Winnipeg.”
Battling through the effects of a surgically repaired foot, the tough Manitoba elements, and the two-time defending Grey Cup champions, the Canadian sensation fell flat in a way CFL fans had not yet seen. He opened the game with five straight incompletions and was plagued by an erratic release throughout the first half, entering the break 7-of-17 for 87 yards and an interception.
While analysts and experts will spend an offseason trying to pinpoint an exact reason for the failure, Rourke himself could offer no easy answer.
“It’s tough to say. Mentally, I thought I was okay with the environment, with the cold, and all that different stuff,” he shared at the podium.
“Sometimes it happens for you and sometimes it doesn’t and to be honest, at this point I don’t exactly know why, but clearly it wasn’t out there and I didn’t show up the way that I needed to.”
The second half offered some chance at redemption and Rourke finished the game 20-of-37 for 300 yards, a fourth-quarter touchdown, and two interceptions. He also added 20 yards on the ground to lead the team, which was an unexpected result he cited as evidence that his injured right foot had no bearing on his playoff output.
Down eight points in the final minutes, there was hope that the Canadian pivot could once again catch fire and pull off a heroic comeback. In the end, he was stymied by the IG Field crowd rendering his play calls inaudible and allowing precious seconds to tick off the clock.
Despite the slow start and failed two-minute drill, Lions’ head coach Rick Campbell still had nothing negative to say about his quarterback. Context is critical, a fact often forgotten when talking about a player still just fourteen starts into his professional career.
“I think this is about as hard a game that he’ll play in so far as everything, the whole situation, all that. And he’s a 24-year-old and can handle all this stuff. I couldn’t have done this when I was 24, I know that,” Campbell stressed.
“I think he’s got nowhere to go but up, which is saying something. It just didn’t happen tonight.”
No loss can dampen the offseason circus that is now set to begin in Vancouver, with conversations around Rourke’s future beginning almost as soon as the final whistle blew. Many will openly wonder if the last image Lions fans will ever see of their homegrown phenom will be one of defeat, with him sobbing on the shoulder of veteran receiver Bryan Burnham.
Those realities are still far too abstract for the youngster to grapple with in the midst of the greatest letdown in his sporting life.
“Honestly, what’s going to happen next season and all that stuff is really at the back of my mind. What’s hard right now, what stings right now, is for people like Burnham, for people like our veterans on this team; the people that I was playing for out there,” he said. “When you’re not able to get it done and you put in a performance like that, that makes it a lot tougher.”
No matter how tough the final outing was, the staggering raw numbers and early season tape remain out there. Even in defeat, Rourke can only avoid the NFL question for so long and to most, the answer seems obvious.
However, leaving is harder when unfinished business remains. Asked point blank if he’ll be back in Lions colours next year, the heartbeat of the franchise left the door open — if only slightly.
“I don’t know,” Rourke admitted. “I’d sure like to be the way that I’m feeling right now.”