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Hall of Famer Greg Vavra hoping Rourke can continue to blossom with B.C. Lions

Greg Vavra is firmly in B.C. Lions quarterback Nathan Rourke's corner. Rourke, a 24-year-old from Victoria, accounted for five touchdowns (three passing, two rushing) in B.C.'s season-opening 59-15 home victory over the Edmonton Elks on June 11.
B.C. Lions quarterback Nathan Rourke (12) is pushed out of bounds by Edmonton Elks' Jalen Collins as he runs with the ball during the first half of CFL football game in Vancouver, on Saturday, June 11, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Greg Vavra is firmly in B.C. Lions quarterback Nathan Rourke's corner.

Rourke, a 24-year-old from Victoria, accounted for five touchdowns (three passing, two rushing) in B.C.'s season-opening 59-15 home victory over the Edmonton Elks on June 11. That matched the Canadian record set in 1969 by legendary Ottawa Rough Riders quarterback Russ Jackson.

Playing in his second CFL season, Rourke also set a Canadian quarterback record by completing 26-of-29 passes (89.7 per cent) for 282 yards while rushing seven times for 78 yards. The last Canadians to throw three TD passes in a game were Brandon Bridge of Mississauga, Ont., (2017 with the Saskatchewan Roughriders) and Vavra (1984 with the Calgary Stampeders).

Rourke and Edmonton rookie Tre Ford, of Niagara Falls, Ont., both took snaps in the contest. It marked the first time two Canadian quarterbacks attempted passes in the same game since August 1982.

"I'm just happy for (Rourke)," Vavra said during a telephone interview. "He seems like a great person who has a skillset and ability to move around and make the secondary play.

"I see many attributes in him that should lead to his success and I'm hopeful it does. I watch the Canadians now and I root for the Canadian quarterback just like everyone else does."

The six-foot-two, 209-pound Rourke started two of the 13 games he appeared in last season. He completed 52-of-82 passes (63.4 per cent) for 754 yards with three TDs and five interceptions while rushing 18 times for 111 yards (6.2-yard average) and five touchdowns.

Rourke took over the Lions' starting job after the off-season retirement of veteran Michael Reilly.

Vavra, 61, was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame on Friday night in honour of his stellar collegiate career, The six-foot-one, 195-pound quarterback spent five seasons at the University of Calgary (1979-83), winning both a Vanier Cup and Hec Crighton Trophy as Canadian college football's outstanding player in his final year.

Vavra threw for 8,401 yards and 63 TDs at Calgary, which were both tops in Canadian university football at the time. Vavra also handled kicking duties for the Dinos, hitting both a 52-yard field goal and 93-yard punt during the '82 season.

He went on to play five CFL seasons with Calgary (1984-85), B.C. (1986-87) and Edmonton (1988). He completed 253-of-524 passes (48.3 per cent) for 3,236 yards with 17 TDs and 31 interceptions. He also ran for 194 yards in 51 carries (3.8-yard average) and a touchdown.

Vavra was inducted into the University of Calgary's Hall of Fame in 1995. His No. 17 was retired by the school, the first Dino to receive the honour.

But as impressive as Rourke's play was in the Lions' opener, Vavra also heaped lavish praise upon head coach/co-GM Rick Campbell and offensive co-ordinator Jordan Maksymic.

"He (Rourke) has physical skills but what I really appreciated about watching him was Rick Campbell obviously has an open mind," Vavra said. "He's carrying two Canadian quarterbacks (Rourke and backup Michael O'Connor, of Ottawa) on the roster this year.

"And I thought (Maksymic) put (Rourke) in great positions . . . the offensive philosophy was just excellent. They got guys open and Rourke made the throws, he's a very accurate passer. The other thing was, I thought his offensive line did an excellent job of protecting him."

Vavra said having the confidence of a team and its coaching staff are paramount to any quarterback's success, regardless of nationality.

"I didn't care about the buzz of Canadian quarterbacks," he said. "I had maybe a little bit of a naive expectation that, regardless of where you were born, if you could get the job done when you played then you'd get the opportunity.

"When I had an open-minded coach, and I had a few of them -- Steve Burrato, Adam Rita and Don Matthews -- when I was given the opportunity by someone who truly wanted to see me succeed, things worked out. I was on the side of it many times as well where the coach didn't think a Canadian could play at that position and you weren't afforded the opportunity that others trained in the States got and things didn't work out. It's just the way it is."

The Canadian quarterback in the CFL has long been a hot debate among fans and football pundits in Canada. Rourke has always been gracious in continually answering questions about it, both during his stellar collegiate career and since being taken in the second round, No. 15 overall, by the Lions in the 2020 CFL draft.

But such talk is moot unless Canadians get an honest chance to play and learn about the nuances of the pro game.

"It really doesn't matter how you discuss (Rourke)," Vavra said. "He's on the field and if he gets the job done, he's going to get his next opportunity and if he doesn't, he won't.

"Hopefully he gets that full opportunity. I played with many quarterbacks who got more than one shot. It doesn't always work out for a young quarterback coming out of college. The game is different and it just seems like some of the teammates I had got opportunity after opportunity because the coach just believed in the potential and they don't always have the same view of a young man who is Canadian."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 20, 2022.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press