CFL fans mourn empty nest as they say bittersweet NFL goodbye to Canadian QB Nathan Rourke

Photo courtesy: BC Lions

It was the moment that we all knew was coming, but none of us wanted to arrive.

On Sunday morning, CFL fans watched from the front porch as young superstar Nathan Rourke loaded the last of his belongings into the back of a hand-me-down station wagon, waved goodbye, and headed off into the great unknown of the NFL with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The emotions being felt across the country right now are complex. There is an intense pride and excitement for what is to come but a deep sense of mourning as well. That internal conflict is completely understandable. We all just suddenly became football empty-nesters.

Over the past two years, fans have watched Rourke grow before their very eyes, blossoming into something unlike anything we’ve seen in a generation. He became a must-watch event, a unifying storyline that transcended team affiliation. He was the physical manifestation of a dream whispered for over 50 years; the next great Canadian quarterback.

It was a title that Rourke often filled reluctantly, not seeking to be defined by his passport. Though he came out of his shell and revealed a wicked sense of humour as the year went on, Kid Canada never felt fully comfortable with the accolades and hyperbole hurled in his direction from every corner of the media. On that front, I was never much of a help.

For sixty minutes every week, Rourke felt like an inevitability. His play dazzled and astounded as he sliced through helpless defences with lethal efficiency, shattering his own Canadian passing records again and again. No matter the circumstances or the early struggles, there always came a time when he was able to seize control of the game. On a couple of occasions, opponents were simply fortunate the clock ran out before he was able to finish the job.

For as much as his abilities seemed otherworldly, the Oakville native came by his success the way all mortals do. His work ethic is unparalleled and still far too little is made of how he completely redefined his throwing mechanics over the course of the pandemic. Once viewed as an inaccurate and weak-armed passer, many wondered if Rourke had the necessary tools to be a starting quarterback, even at the CFL level. By the time he made his 2022 debut, velocity had become his trademark and he would go on to have the most accurate season in CFL history.

There is little doubt that Rourke underwent that transformation with the hopes of earning the NFL opportunity he was never afforded coming out of college, but quarterbacking the B.C. Lions was never an afterthought to him. When he suffered his Lisfranc sprain in August, his NFL future was seemingly secure and no one would have batted an eye had he simply decided his year was over. Instead, he underwent surgery and pushed through rehab to make a miraculous return for the playoffs, fighting through tremendous pain to try and win his teammates a Grey Cup.

Draped over Bryan Burnham’s shoulder in tears after the West Final, Rourke had nothing left to give. He has more than earned the right to take a shot at his dream and the generational wealth that comes with it.

Nobody who watched his meteoric rise could wish anything but the best for Rourke. Multiple teammates remarked throughout the season that they would one day tell their kids about how they got to play with him and it will be the same for the rest of us. He is the latest in a long line of CFL myths; the type of player who only becomes more sensational the farther removed you are from his last snap in the league.

That profile will grow with each ounce of success he has south of the border and every diehard wants that for his sake — and our own. For as much as we like to pat ourselves on the back for our own uniqueness and claim isolationism, the Canadian game is as much shaped by its diaspora as it is by those who choose to stay. Rourke’s accomplishments will always feel, at least a little bit, like ours too.

There is no question that his departure leaves a massive hole and there will be those who succumb to the depression of an empty house. Rourke helped revived interest in one of the CFL’s largest and most beleaguered markets, capturing the attention of young fans in a way very few have. Such a bright star leaving so early in his career is enough to make almost anyone turn to nihilism and question the future of the league, but it needn’t be that way.

The NFL has soundly won the game of global capitalism and they long ago did away with any semblance of a level playing field, but the CFL thrives in part because of our players who continue to thrive once in the international spotlight. Warren Moon, Doug Flutie, Cameron Wake, and Alex Singleton have done as much to drive fresh talent to our league since they left as they did to drive ticket sales when they were here. Rourke will be the same.

And so, like proud parents, we’ll watch from afar and wait for the success we all know he’s capable of, constantly worrying that those around him aren’t appreciating him enough or treating him as well as we do. We’ll keep his bedroom furnished and leave the posters on the wall, secretly wishing that one day he’ll need to come home but knowing that he can stand alone in the world without us.

Nathan Rourke was a nightmare for opponents, a joy to watch, and the pleasure of a lifetime to cover. One way or another, the CFL will always be a part of him and he will always have a place here. But now is his time to do what kids have always done; grow up and chase their dreams far away from where it all began.

All CFL fans can do now is check his oil, slip him a twenty for gas, and blame the waterworks on the dust as he heads off down the road.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.