An accomplished passer, an elusive rusher, an expert in the film room, and a perennial victor in bowl season. Former Ohio Bobcats quarterback Nathan Rourke is many things, but throughout the past few months, he is trying to utilize those accolades and traits to become something else — an NFL quarterback. Nicknamed “Air Canada”, Rourke is focused on elevating a football career that began blossoming at the age of five in Ontario to the most heralded and prestigious level of football in the world.
The grind to the NFL
Nathan Rourke’s offseason training has been anything but a breeze, but the surrounding chaos is completely out of the 21-year old’s control. While training in Nashville, a tornado swept through the city from the night of March 2 until the morning of March 3. Slightly more than a week later, the entire sports world shut down in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, resulting in the cancelation of Rourke’s March 17 Pro Day. The NFL Draft has yet to be postponed, so draft hopefuls that didn’t receive an NFL Combine invite have yet to conduct their official job interview in front of professional scouts. With a football career on the line, Rourke is planning a potential showcase of his skills at his Nashville training facility in the near future.
For a quarterback with successful college stats and no Combine invite, there are certain mechanics Rourke has been developing in Nashville to augment his chances of earning a roster spot for the 2020 NFL season.
“For a guy who predominantly took his snaps from shotgun, it’s to show that you’re able to move under center and be able to do all the stuff under center with the drops, and the rhythm, and the timing,” Rourke said. “Those are the things we’re really trying to attack here.”
Rourke earned a valuable opportunity in the scouting limelight at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl on January 18. He’s also sought advice from former Ohio teammates who experienced this process on what to expect during the grind that extends from the end of bowl season to the NFL Draft. There are no certainties in professional football, especially in the chaotic timeframe that is the spring of 2020. Now, the lingering question is, what’s next for the former Bobcat star quarterback?
“I’m not worried about where I’m gonna land,” Rourke said. “I know I have an opportunity to make a team. It’s a matter of where and the best situation.”
But if there’s one thing NFL teams can rely on regarding Rourke that will translate to the next level, Ohio head coach Frank Solich stated it best at the 2018 Frisco Bowl.
“You don’t beat him in terms of preparation,” Solich said. “I don’t care if you’re a player or a coach. He becomes very special to our program in his leadership, as well as his talent.”
Air Canada makes his landing in Ohio
Nathan Rourke grew up in Oakville, Ontario, a town on the Great Lakes in the Greater Toronto Area. Canada’s most popular province is traditionally renowned for its affinity for hockey and the hometown Maple Leafs. James Naismith, the founder of basketball, also hails from Ontario, an area where the defending NBA champion Raptors are rapidly increasing in popularity.
While the CFL exists in Canada, the game of American football certainly takes a backseat to other sports such as hockey and basketball. The NFL hasn’t seen a Canadian quarterback since current ESPN analyst Jesse Palmer started a trio of games for the New York Giants in 2003.
“It definitely is not anything close to what hockey is,” Rourke said. “As I was growing up, you saw a rise in Canadian basketball, and people I played with in high school were able to go D-I, or even go to the NBA. Football was always playing second or third fiddle to that. At high school growing up, there was never many people at our games.”
For Rourke, football was always his passion growing up. In his youth, he was introduced to the game by his favorite player, a discovery which spearheaded Rourke’s journey as a quarterback at the age of five.
“I was a big Green Bay Packers fan growing up,” Rourke said. “I loved Brett Favre, so when I watched him on Sundays, I’d want to go out and emulate him. As soon as I could, I was trying to play, and that’s just because I was a fan of the game itself.”
Following his junior year of high school in Ontario, Rourke finished his senior year in the United States. With the move, Rourke had to adapt to different high school football rules from Canada to the US, including the number of downs and number of defenders lurking on the field. But the adjustments proved no issue for Rourke, as he led Edgewood Academy (in Elwood, AL) to a state championship with nearly 3,800 passing yards and 59 touchdowns.
“How you approach a game, because there’s one more down, there were definitely some differences I had to take into account,” Rourke said on adjusting to football in the United States. “For a quarterback in the CFL, you’re really throwing the ball a good chunk of the time. If you’re not throwing it on first down, you’re definitely throwing it on second down. And the offense I played for in Alabama, we were pass heavy and we were running a spread, which is pretty much all the CFL is.”
Rourke played one year at Fort Scott Community College in Kansas before receiving several Division I offers. The Ohio Bobcats program, one of the quarterback’s few FBS offers, was a practical choice for Rourke considering the stability of head coach Frank Solich and the rest of his staff. Rourke’s gamble paid off, and Ohio retained Solich, offensive coordinator Tim Albin, and quarterbacks coach Scott Isphording all three years he was under center.
From the time Rourke stepped foot on to an FBS field, it was clear the Bobcats landed a special quarterback. In his collegiate debut, a 59-0 win over Hampton, the quarterback eventually known as “Air Canada” threw for 72 yards on 10 attempts and rushed for 59 yards and a hat trick of touchdowns — the first of Rourke’s five college games featuring 3+ rushing scores.
“Everything was kind of a blur,” Rourke said. “My entire sophomore year was a blur of things happening quickly. But in that game, I remembered running out of the tunnel for the first time and being extremely happy and feeling very blessed to be in the position where I was. Just a year prior, I was in junior college not knowing where my path was gonna lead.”
Three months and two seasons later, Rourke left an unmatched legacy behind in Athens, Ohio. He became the third quarterback in MAC history to win three-straight bowl games, and Ohio tied the conference’s longest bowl win streak ever with consecutive postseason victories from 2017-19. Rourke was named MVP in his final ride wearing green and white, a 30-21 dismantling of Nevada in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise.
“It was a game of lasts, a week of lasts,” Rourke said. “At the end of the game, when we kneeled the ball down and we were all celebrating, it was hard to celebrate because it was bittersweet. I remember in the 1996 Super Bowl highlight film, Brett Favre was saying he didn’t feel like celebrating because he knew the ride was over and he wanted to keep going, and that’s how I felt.”
The molding of a dual-threat quarterback
How does a young quarterback decide to be a dual-threat? For Nathan Rourke, he primarily worked as a pocket passer prior to his arrival at Ohio. His senior year of high school, he recorded seven rushing touchdowns — an amount which tripled in his first year of FBS football.
“Before I came to Ohio, I never really ran the ball much. I was someone who scrambled every once in a while because I wanted to make plays, but I always wanted to improve in the passing game and that’s always been my focus,” Rourke said. “There’s a lot of stuff in terms of elusiveness and subtle movement that has always come naturally to me, and you can even trace that back to when I was younger. I really had to work on things like my speed and acceleration because that didn’t always come as naturally. Every year, I’ve just tried to improve as a passer and extend plays when needed.”
Rourke improved his passing game each year of college. His completion percentage, passing yards, and touchdown-to-interception ratio all increased from sophomore to junior year, and again from junior to season year. But what made the three-time All-MAC selection stand out above other collegiate quarterbacks was his rushing ability. Bursting onto the FBS scene as a sophomore, Rourke finished third in the country in rushing touchdowns with 21, a number which reigned superior among all players at his position.
“I was a very different quarterback my sophomore year when I got to OU than when I left and who I am now,” Rourke said. “That evolution of me as a player is something scouts really look at, and teams really look at, and what I can be in the future.”
Rourke rushed for at least 860 yards and 13 touchdowns all three years as Ohio’s starter. For an NFL hopeful, displaying that versatility in the college game means more than it did a decade ago. While excelling in the mobility department, he also eclipsed 2,200 yards passing and 17 touchdowns each season as passer, while never throwing more than eight interceptions in a single campaign.
Dual-threat quarterbacks continue to become more prevalent in the NFL as the game continues to evolve. Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson was selected as the second unanimous MVP in the league’s history last season despite ranking 22nd in passing yards. Jackson led his Ravens to the NFL’s best record and displayed his versatility by checking in as the league’s sixth-ranked rusher and the league’s touchdown pass leader.
“The success of the last couple of number one picks — with Kyler Murray — and with last year’s MVP in Lamar Jackson. They’re kind of breaking the mold in terms of what an NFL quarterback is thought of. That’s definitely good,” Rourke said regarding the rise of dual-threat quarterbacks at the NFL level. “I’m not gonna put myself in their category at all, but it definitely helps someone like myself.”
The abundance of mobile quarterbacks across the NFL is increasing, but perhaps we’re seeing the start of a new trend occurring down in New Orleans. Taysom Hill, an esteemed dual-threat quarterback at BYU, serves a critical role on the Saints’ high-powered offense by starring in multiple positions. Hill lined up as a quarterback, receiver, tight end, fullback, and even made appearances on kickoff coverage in the 2019 season. If other franchises follow suit, Rourke could thrive in a similar role on an NFL roster.
“People like Taysom Hill, where they’re able to use him in multiple ways — that definitely opens up opportunities for people like myself, especially coming from a smaller school,” Rourke said.
While Rourke hasn’t worked out in any other positions besides quarterback, he displayed versatility on the Bobcats offense as a passer, rusher, and occasionally as a receiver. He caught four passes during his tenure at Ohio including two touchdowns. Overall, Rourke produced 111 touchdowns as a Bobcat — 60 through the air, 49 stemming from the ground, and two as a receiver.
And those 111 touchdowns capped off a memorable college career in Ohio, and they possibly serve as the gateway to the next chapter in professional football.