VANCOUVER — If you’re a fan of B.C. football, I am sure you’ll agree that the summer of 2022 has been blessed by a thick coating of something best described as quarterback karma… the likes of which we have never seen.
Of course, you can start with the previously unthinkable: Canadians Nathan Rourke and Michael O’Connor occupying the respective QB-1 and QB-2 positions on the B.C. Lions’ depth chart over the first half of the CFL season.
And now, as our historic summer hits its stretch drive to autumn, we look towards UBC’s Point Grey campus to join, in progress, an act of joyous gridiron role reversal centred around what is best described as the ‘Canadianization’ of a young-and-gifted American quarterback.
On Saturday night (7 p.m., Thunderbird Stadium, Canada West TV), when the hometown ‘Birds play host to the Alberta Golden Bears in the Canada West opener for both schools, UBC’s second-year quarterback Garrett Rooker— a former Texas 6A high school standout — will bark out the signals with an ever-growing appreciation for the nuances of the Canadian game.
And that’s in part because the 6-foot-3, 205-pound League City (TX)-Clear Springs pivot, coming off a freshman campaign (1,437 yards, 8 touchdowns, 69 per cent completion percentage) in which he was the unanimous pick amongst conference coaches as Canada West Rookie of the Year, got a chance to see what life in the CFL is really like by attending Lions’ training camp as a mentee under both Rourke and former UBC star O’Connor.
Before we get too far, however, it’s important to point out just how rare U.S.-reared quarterbacks have been in the UBC football program.
Although not to be taken as absolute gospel, it is believed that the last time an American pivot played for the ‘Birds was some 39 years ago when Jay Gard of Federal Way (Wash.) wrapped up a three-year stint under legendary head coach Frank Smith in 1983.
Quite famously, on a team led by freshman tailback Glenn Steele, starting QB Gard — according to the reports of the day — shone in the final game of the 1982 season as the ‘Birds beat Western Ontario 39-14 to win the school’s first-ever Vanier Cup national championship.
The win came just one week ahead of a 19-8 Shrum Bowl win over Simon Fraser in what would be final crosstown clash contested at old Empire Stadium.
Not that there was anything about the three-down game which proved too prickly for the athletic and strong-armed Rooker in 2021, but getting the chance to live the Canadian game with Canadian quarterbacks in the professional setting of a CFL camp was about as well-timed as one has his own trademark outside-the-pocket, on-the-run completions.
“That was a super cool experience, just to be surrounded by professionals playing this game,” acknowledged Rooker. “(CFL players) went on strike part way through the camp and that kind of threw things off, but it was a huge experience for me, mentally too, seeing how they all carried themselves.”
And now, as Rooker attempts to help UBC back to the top of the U Sports’ football mountain this season with what would be the ‘Birds first Vanier Cup national title since O’Connor’s rookie campaign in 2015, the significance of his assigned CFL training camp roommate was not lost on him.
“I got to room with Mike, who had such a great career at UBC, and it was interesting to see how he carried himself through training camp,” began Rooker.
“Michael is just a super-cool guy and he will talk to you about football for hours… I just tried to soak up as much as I could from Michael and how he carries himself. He’s a professional on and off the field. I just tried to learn as much as possible.”
And of course Rourke, since lost to the Lions for the season following an ankle injury, emerged from that training camp to quickly became the new standard of excellence for all Canadian quarterbacks.
“He is in the playbook as much as he can be,” said Rooker of the Victoria-born, Oakville (Ont.)-raised Rourke, who after playing his college football in the MAC with the Ohio Bobcats brought stunning vertical proficiency to the Leos’ attack. “I think the thing that separates him is that he knows exactly where he is going and he doesn’t let the defence really affect what he is doing. I was able to study the way he prepares for practice and games. There is a reason why he has done so well.”
UBC head coach Blake Nill, set to enter his eighth season at the helm, is especially proud of the QB-to-QB connection that has developed over the course of his first extended Thunderbirds’ recruiting cycle.
“I think any time our current group can connect with alumni, it’s a great thing,” explained Nill. “Mike and Garrett are relatively of the same vintage, let’s say, and I think it’s been a big positive. I believe that our current group has to aspire to higher levels and Mike O’Connor has shown he is able to do everything he needs to do as a Canadian quarterback and he is a tremendous role model to all our kids.”
Maintaining blue-chip skill at the game’s most vital position is one thing, but enhancing it through program tradition is an icing no coach can ever count on.
Yet not only has UBC, picked third in the Canada West pre-season coaches poll behind No. 1 Saskatchewan and No. 2 Manitoba, found elite stability at the quarterback spot, it returns somewhere in the region of 70 per cent of its starters from a season ago, including virtually its entire offence with the exception of receiver Trey Kellogg and hulking left guard Diego Alatorre.
The starting backfield of Isaiah Knight and Dane Kapler can stand alongside any duo in the nation, and a deep pass-catching core led by the likes of Jason Soriano, Edgerrin Williams and Lucas Robertson had already developed strong chemistry with both Rooker and a front line which includes top tackles Giovanni Manu and Theo Benedet.
And come Saturday, on a the heels of UBC’s 28-7 exhibition win over the Calgary Dinos last week in Vernon, Rooker is entrusted with the job of helping take that unit to a new level as the conference returns to its full eight-game regular season format.
“It all starts with that position and to have some continuity there with a playmaker who we feel can be successful… that makes a big difference,” said Nill. “And now, maybe Garrett can shoulder a bit more weight as some of the younger guys catch up. At the same time, he’s starting to reveal more of his leadership, and he’s demanding more from the veterans on this team. That is a win-win for us.”
THE CANADIAN CLUB
Jay Gard helped lead UBC to a Vanier Cup national title in his second year of eligibility with the Thunderbirds.
Aside from the fact that Garrett Rooker, precisely 40 years later, also happens to be entering his second season of eligibility with the ‘Birds, there is at least one other huge similarity between the pair: They both came north with an emphasis on the classroom first.
In our first-ever conversation with Rooker, not too soon after his commitment to UBC in early May of 2020, the then-18-year-pivot and budding kinesiology major explained to Varsity Letters: “My family has always been academics first. I’m at the top of my class in high school, I’m very competitive with my grades and it’s something I am very passionate about.”
Rooker, in fact, came to know about UBC because several students of his dad, Dr. Jay R. Rooker, a marine biology professor at Texas A&M-Galveston, had later gone north to take classes at the sprawling Point Grey campus.
Forty years ago, it was pretty much the same story for Gard, as former Vancouver Sun sports writer Elliott Pap wrote Sept. 15, 1981 in a similarly-themed story of U.S.-to-Canada collegiate role reversal which was cleverly headlined “BIRD PIVOT REVERSES BRAWN DRAIN DOWN SOUTH”.
Said Gard: “My schooling is the most important thing to me, and we heard a lot about the education here. I’m not going to play football all my life. I’m thinking about engineering or dentistry.”
His connection to UBC?
“My dad and coach Smith have known each other for about 20 years. They used to coach in the same league. So we came and visited in late April. It was the first time I’d ever been in Canada.”
And so as a summer filled with strange and wonderful Canadian quarterback karma draws to a close, and the fall Canada West season beckons, it seems only fitting that we ask the kid from Texas if his so-called Canadianization makes it easier to to speak with passion about the three-down game he seems born to play.
“I can, I can,” he begins. “I go back home and I speak really highly of the my situations and my experiences up here, and the people back home are starting to pay a little more attention to the U SPORTS game and my career up here.”
His personal viewing habits have also made the transition.
“I have gone to a couple of games,” he said of watching his camp mentors Rourke and O’Connor at B.C. Place Stadium earlier this season, and I have tuned into every single game. It’s the same for my dad. Since I went (to CFL camp) he tunes in to every B.C. Lions game. And it’s cool. Now you can see the plays they are running and you pick things up.”
All of that is music to the ears of Football Canada president Jim Mullin, a lifelong ambassador and passionate historian of the Canadian game who needed but a few seconds to reference Gard as the last American to play the pivot at UBC.
Mullin, whose vision helped launch the Jon Cornish Trophy honouring the best Canadian player in NCAA football (named after the former St. Thomas More Knights, Kansas Jayhawks and Calgary Stampeders star running back), puts in perspective just how rare and special it is to see a talented U.S. player come north and compete in a Canadian university football league.
“In our last count of Canadians playing football in the NCAA (at the FBS and FCS tiers), there were 203 of them at both levels, and that is two entire U Sports rosters,” said Mullin.
“Knowing that there is the appetite to offset some of that loss with a quality player like Rooker, whose family put a first-class education as their first priority, is really reassuring because they get the whole picture of what university athletics is supposed to be all about.
“And the thing for a player like Rooker is, with the new rules regarding national status,” continued Mullin, “is that if he plays three years in U SPORTS, he qualifies as a national and he can follow a guy like Michael O’Connor into the CFL.”
Starting Canadian quarterbacks in the CFL, and now, potentially, a U.S.-born player with the ability and the growing talent to qualify as a Canadian in the CFL following his career in the U SPORTS’ system?
Gives you something to think about as you settle into your seats this Saturday night at Thunderbird Stadium.
Garrett Rooker hails from a place where the game is like a religion, yet UBC’s own Texas import has come north to embrace a new set of rules.
And judging by his smile, it suits him just fine.
All of that, and thick slathering of summer football karma could go a long ways towards making this fall a season to remember at Thunderbird Stadium.
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