Nathan Rourke, of Oakville, Ont., is eligible for both the NFL and CFL drafts this month, in an April 17, 2020 story. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Canadian Rourke looking forward to getting shot at playing pro football

Nathan Rourke isn’t fretting about his uncertain football future.

The Oakville, Ont., native is eligible for both the NFL and CFL drafts this month following a productive collegiate career at Ohio University. Not only is Rourke unsure about where he’ll be next, there’s the matter of how many games — if any — either league will play due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But rather than dwell upon that, the six-foot-two, 209-pound quarterback is looking forward to realizing a childhood dream.

“You’d think I’d be more worried about it,” Rourke said via telephone from Athens, Ohio. ”There’s plenty of uncertainty with COVID right now, that’s just another thing I could potentially worry about.

“But I’m at peace with that. All I’ve ever wanted since I was a kid was to play professionally and have an opportunity to do so. Now that I feel like I’m so close, that’s what’s exciting.”

Rourke, 21, completed 200-of-308 passes (64.9 per cent) for 2,820 yards with 20 TDs and five interceptions last season. He capped his collegiate career leading the Redhawks past Nevada 30-21 in Famous Idaho Potato Bowl on Jan. 3.

Rourke was 9-of-17 passing for 144 yards while rushing for 87 yards on 10 carries, including a 35-yard TD run.

Over three seasons and 39 career starts, Rourke was 526-of-895 passes (58.8 per cent) for 7,454 yards with 60 TDs and 20 interceptions. He ran for 2,639 yards (6.21-yard average) and 49 touchdowns while adding three receptions for 20 yards and two TDs.

Rourke is also the only recipient of the Jon Cornish Trophy, given annually to the top Canadian player in the NCAA ranks. The award was established in 2017 and Rourke won it the first two times it was given out (2018, ‘19). He’s a finalist again this year, with the winner being named next month.

Despite his solid mental approach, Rourke has had to deal with challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ohio University’s pro day slated for March 17 was cancelled, forcing Rourke to make virtual workouts and throwing sessions available for all 32 NFL teams.

He’s also held virtual interviews with NFL and CFL clubs.

The NFL draft will be held next week (Thursday-Saturday). The CFL’s event is April 30.

Rourke figures to either be a late-round NFL pick or sign as an undrafted free agent. He’s also leaving the door wide open to playing in Canada but would prefer to exhaust all options south of the border first.

CFL teams can only have only two quarterbacks on the active roster. A third would have to be content biding his time on the practice roster.

“He’s been a very productive football player and again you have to understand him and his agent are dialled in on the NFL, which is quite common for a lot of guys this time of year,” said Kyle Walters, the GM of the Grey Cup-champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers. ”He’s tough, he’s physical, there’s a lot to like about his game.

“If and when he does make his way up to the CFL, he has a legitimate shot.”

Canadian-born quarterbacks in the CFL are an endangered species. Last month, Brandon Bridge of Mississauga, Ont., retired after five seasons to pursue a career in police work.

The six-foot-five, 235-pound Bridge played for Montreal (2015-16, 2019), Saskatchewan (2016-18) and B.C. (2019). He appeared in 69 career regular-season games and made six starts, four coming in 2018 with the Riders.

Bridge made his first pro start in Montreal’s 30-24 overtime loss to Saskatchewan on Nov. 8, 2015. He became the first Canadian quarterback to appear in a CFL regular-season game since Danny Brannagan in 2010.

In 2018, Bridge started in Saskatchewan’s 23-18 West Division semifinal loss to Winnipeg. That made him the first Canuck playoff starter since Gerry Dattilio in 1984.

“When people like Brandon Bridge were in the CFL, they were the inspiration for many kids and showing you can do this,” Rourke said. “I’d look at it the same way.

“There aren’t many Canadian quarterbacks but the opportunity to be one and be able to make an impact not only for yourself but others who’ll follow in your steps, that’s really cool. I’d understand I’m playing not only for myself but also many other people who’d want to do what I’m doing.”

Rourke said Ohio University has prepared him well for pro football.

“One reason I picked Ohio was because I thought it set me up well,” Rourke said. “Most of the plays we ran we did with two, sometimes three or four plays called at the line of scrimmage and then we’d change into the one based on the best look the defence was giving us.

“That’s an NFL concept and it’s already familiar to me … not many teams do that at the college level.”

Rourke looks back fondly on his time at Ohio University, but with one exception.

“I thought we were the best team in the MAC all three years and we didn’t win a MAC championship,” Rourke said. “That’s the one thing that’s going to keep eating at me.”

But Rourke will have more than just a rooting interest when Ohio resumes chasing its first MAC title since 1968. His younger brother, Kurtis, — a six-foot-three, 211-pound quarterback — was a freshman last year.

“He’s his own player,” Nathan Rourke said. “I want to make sure he’s not going to be living up to any expectations and that he’s going to pave his own way.

“I’ll be excited to watch him. My biggest hope is he wins a championship because that would be something special for him, the university and community of Athens.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 17, 2020.

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