VANCOUVER — All similarities are of course unintentional, yet it seemed there were so many times this past Friday night at a sold-out Thunderbird Stadium that the cocked arm of UBC quarterback Garrett Rooker had an overflow crowd of 7,100 in the same state of rapt anticipation normally associated with a maestro’s baton at the beginning of a symphony’s first movement.
When the willowy 6-foot-3 Texas import moved, it seemed as though they swayed right along with him.
And in those moments in which he would launch a pass downfield, you’d almost swear that for a split second, all the huddled masses could do was inhale and hold their collective breath in a kind of glorious silence, the frequency of which has been a telltale sign of one thing: This season, fans of the Blue-and-Gold know that great things can happen at any time.
You can call it a kind of football communion built on the trust that within a single tick of the clock, they too will get see what UBC’s 21-year-old star quarterback has already glimpsed.
I can’t speak for the students or the army of returning alums who shoe-horned their way into the stadium for Homecoming Friday to watch what may well be UBC’s best football team since its 2015 Vanier Cup-winning national champs.
“(But) I think it’s the start of recognizing us for what we are, (and) I think we are Top 5… I’ll argue that,” ninth-year ‘Birds head coach Blake Nill said of his team, which came into the contest ranked No. 7 nationally. “We’re Top 5. I’ve coached long enough to know.”
Indeed he has.
And unwittingly, it was the last six words of the coach’s statement that held the most resonance in Friday’s on-field post-game scrum because the victory gave UBC its first 4-0 start to a Canada West campaign in 31 years.
Hop in the way-back machine and you’re suddenly back in 1992, not only here in Vancouver with the legendary coach Frank Smith and the young, slinging Adrian Rainbow at quarterback, but also on the other side of the country, in Antigonish, NS where a young Nill was taking on his first big coaching role as the defensive coordinator of the AUS’ St.-FX X-Men.
And that feeling of absolute Vanier Cup-contending relevance is what was not only witnessed, but more importantly felt, as the Thunderbirds beat the visiting and vastly under-rated No. 9 Alberta Golden Bears (3-1) by a thoroughly entertaining 54-37 count in a battle between the Canada West’s last pair of undefeated teams.
From start to finish, Rooker was once again sublime, this time going 27-of-34 for 363 yards and three touchdowns against no interceptions.
Yet all of this came exactly 11 months to day after Rooker both dislocated and fractured his hip in a home game against the Saskatchewan Huskies, an injury so comprehensive in nature that it not only placed his future in the game on a precipice, it embedded itself deep within the very core of the team’s psyche.
Such is influence of QB-1 to mirror the temperature and tenor of every football team.
A simple eye test from the stands of old Thunderbird will have you convinced that in 2023 there is an abundance of talent — on both sides of the ball and within every positional group — so bountiful as to go beyond enviable.
Yet if you put UBC’s impressive start under the microscope, you’ll find its strongest trait to be a common theme of connectivity based on sacrifice to team.
And on Friday night, as that hometown faithful swayed along to his every move, and trusted in his every throw, it became more and more apparent that Garrett Rooker’s return to huddle has played as big a role as any in the program’s best start in more than a generation.
“I am trusting my body and my mind right now,” Rooker explained on the field following Friday’s win, one which sees UBC sitting all alone in first place at the precise midway mark of the Canada West regular season.
“I feel so good in the pocket right now, and my offensive line… they are giving me time. I am trusting my reads out there, and trusting my process.
“I am definitely a step ahead of where I was last year.”
He’s not only back, he’s better than he ever was.
LIKE TUA BEFORE HIM, A TEMPLATE FOR RECOVERY
Ask Garrett Rooker about all the thoughts which raced through his mind following his injury and it’s apparent that although his future in the sport was muddled for more than just a few months, he was succeeding much more than he was failing when it came to keeping himself grounded in the moment and maintaining a positive outlook.
In fact armed with the wisdom that hindsight affords, Rooker was ready to open up on Friday about an especially meaningful piece of information that passed on to him on his dark day last October. It was one which reinforced to him what his mindset needed to be as he stepped up to meet the months of gruelling surgeries and rehabilitation which lay ahead.
“When I first suffered this injury.. I think it was that night, I think someone came up to me and told me that it was the same injury that Tua had,” he said.
Rooker, of course, is referencing the same season-ending, career-threatening injury — the posterior hip dislocation with fracture — that then-Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa suffered two years earlier in a game against Mississippi State.
Rooker’s injury took him out of the lineup and made him a spectator as UBC made a run to the Hardy Cup finals under the gritty generalship of his teammate and fellow Texan Derek Engel.
Tagovailoa’s injury came at a time when he was the consensus No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming 2020 NFL draft. History show, of course that he was eventually selected fifth overall by the Miami Dolphins.
Interestingly enough, both quarterbacks defied their timetables for return, with Rooker taking his first snap 315 days after his injury, and Tagovailoa his first some 338 days after his.
All of that aside, there is perhaps no other quarterback who has appreciated the journey that the Dolphins’ quarterback mounted to come back from that precise injury more than the Thunderbirds’ quarterback.
“To see his process, to see how he’s developed, and how he’s out there playing great football in the NFL… it’s been a huge inspiration to me,” Rooker explained. “He’s someone I look up to.”
WHY THE ROOKER FORMULAS IS MORE THAN MERE NUMBERS
The statistical ink is now dry on another coast-to-coast weekend of U SPORTS football in Canada, and on this football Sunday morning, taking a glance at the numbers as they pertain to the Renaissance season of Garrett Rooker is surely balm to the soul of UBC football fans in much the same way pivots of recent vintage like 2011 Hec Crighton winner Billy Greene and 2015 Vanier Cup champion Michael O’Connor have been. Here’s just some of Rooker’s accomplishments this season from the national perspective:
*No. 1 nationally in completion percentage at 79.2 %.
*No. 1 nationally in yards-per-attempt at 12.3 yards.
*No. 1 nationally in QB efficiency rating (at 211.7).
*No. 2 nationally in yards-per-game at 325.8.
All of that, suffice to say, goes a long way towards confirming the thought that somehow, 11 months removed from the same injury which, in 1991, brought a sudden and premature end to the career of then-Los Angeles Raiders running Bo Jackson, Rooker is indeed better than ever.
Yet on Friday night, there was a moment, which while having nothing to do with his numbers, seemed to cement it.
Just over five minutes before halftime, on first-and-goal from the Alberta five-yard line, Rooker took the snap and rolled hard to his right, gaining the edge as he turned down the sideline before diving airborne into the end zone to give the ‘Birds a 24-10 lead.
To the humble Rooker, it was not so much a show of courage after his injury, but more an homage to all of those who have helped him return to full-strength plus.
“When I am out there, I am not thinking of the injury,” he said. “I feel good. I feel great. The team around me, the physio team, the strength team. They have done a phenomenal job of getting me ready… so then it’s just me out there making plays, which is what I know how to do.”
In most every instance, your QB-1 is the face of the team, and so in a season when so many football stars have seemingly aligned on the Point Grey campus, it’s not a stretch to say that the magnetic pull of Garrett Rooker is like good, old Sol, shining a light and keeping things bright.
“That touchdown was courageous,” UBC’s head coach Blake Nill confirmed. “That kid is going to get hit. He knows it.”
Nill then looks back to the off-season months where Rooker in re-hab/training was a seemingly omnipresent sight: “All summer long, the hardest worker on the team doing his rehab,” continued the coach, whose team will get its toughest road test of the season this Friday against the Saskatchewan Huskies. “You just have to credit Rooker for the kind of individual he is. Everyone (on the team) will surround Rooker.
“They recognize his commitment, his sacrifice, and now you know what? We are reaping the benefits of that.”
And for as long as he’s breaking the huddle on game days at Thunderbird Stadium, fans of UBC football will continue to hang on his every move.
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