Leading Ohio, and the MAC

Ohio quarterback Nathan Rourke (12) tries to stiff arm a Cincinnati defender during the Bobcats’ 34-30 loss at Nippert Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018. Rourke returns for a third season as the Ohio starting quarterback in 2019.

Note: This story appears in the Sunday, Aug. 4 newspaper on Page B1.

The contrast was striking.

On one side of the table was Javon Hagan, looking resplendent in a vibrant bright-blue suit complete with blue shoes adorned with gold spikes and an assortment of bowl rings on his right hand that approached something like a mini-Infinity Gauntlet.

On the opposite side was Nathan Rourke. He was wearing a conservative suit — think something you’d wear to your first job interview at a CPA firm — and had his brow furrowed as he continued to read an inspirational/motivational book written by a former Navy Seal and ultra-marathon runner. Next to the book was a plastic water bottle that didn’t leave his side all afternoon.

“See that?” asked Hagan, a fifth-year senior, an all-conference safety and one of the best players in the Mid-American Conference. “See him reading, got his book on, got his water bottle with him.

“He’s always focused man. He’s always dialed in.”

It was a compliment. Even here, during a preseason conference media day where answers become rote and routine and too many people are telling you how good you are, Rourke was trying to enrich his mind and take care of the business of staying hydrated.

If you were looking for the most visible player in the conference at Ford Field last week, your eyes would’ve passed right over Rourke — Ohio’s super-productive senior quarterback. He’s not super-sized, not brightly dressed, and doesn’t overpower a room with an outsized personality when he enters.

But he’s the best quarterback in the MAC, and a huge reason why Ohio is the favorite to win the MAC East Division this season. A two-time Second Team All-MAC pick after racking up 77 total touchdowns the last two years, Rourke is the MAC’s standout entering the 2019 season.

“We’ve got our quarterback,” Ohio head coach Frank Solich said. “He has the trust of this entire team, and guys know we can win with him.”

Rourke will be the face for the Bobcats in 2019, as the program tries to end a conference championship drought that extends back to 1968. He’ll be the face of the conference as well after two seasons of productive, exciting and efficient play-making from the quarterback position.

Rourke could very well be the face of an entire country during the college football season too. The native-born Canadian has earned recognition and ‘shout-outs’ from national outlets for that reason alone, combined with his play the last two years.

It leaves Rourke handling a mantle he didn’t ask for, but will shoulder nonetheless. How does that feel for a guy who is as polite as any stereotype associated with Canadians.

“You wanna guess?” Rourke deadpans when asked.

“It’s all about the team, and it’s all about the program,” he continued. “We’re committed to trying to get a championship. It’s been three years for me, and it’s been over 50 years for this program.

“It’s been too long. That’s all that matters.”

Rourke played much of his high school career in Canada, then began a three-year odyssey that included a final high school season in Alabama, a junior college stint in Kansas, and then his arrival in Athens.

Once he claimed the starter’s role in early 2017, he’s put up a string of 24 starts as good as any in program history. Over two seasons, Rourke has amassed more than 1,700 rushing yards (6.5 per carry), more than 4,600 passing yards (8.2 per attempt) and accounted for 77 total touchdowns in 26 career games.

Rourke’s name is already plastered across the Ohio record book, and the recognition has followed. This summer, for instance, he was invited as a counselor to the 2019 Manning (Peyton and Eli) Passing Academy, and begins the 2019 season on the watch list for the Walter Camp, Maxwell and Davey O’Brien Awards.

Rourke’s physical gifts include quick feet, a natural, instinctive running style, and a knack for making a play when things break down.

But it’s Rourke’s mental strength that has earned the rave reviews from teammates and coaches. He’ll stare down a blitz to deliver a deep ball. He’s the guy who will stay hydrated even on a press junket. He’s the guy who reads obsessively about leadership in order to connect with different teammates. He’s the guy running extra after practice.

And Rourke has embraced it all while doing his best to reflect the attention coming his way, and yet always doing it his own way.

“Nathan is a guy that doesn’t have to feed into the most popular brand. He’s going to do what he feels is right and best,” Hagan said. “He’s himself, always.

“He’s not a ‘brand’ guy. He’s kind of like Kawhi Leonard,” Hagan said, smiling, as he referred to the NBA star known for being a bit stoic. “He’s like the Kawhi Leonard of football. He knows what he’s about, and he doesn’t care if you do or not.

“He doesn’t have to brag or boast or be flashy, but when it’s time to make a play — he makes a play.”

The most colorful thing about Rourke — excluding those bits of on-field magic when he makes something out of nothing — is the ‘Air Canada’ nickname that many have given him. And yes, Rourke could do without that too.

For starters, he said, it’s not original. To Rourke, ‘Air Canada’ belongs to Brandon Bridge. Bridge is a native Canadian quarterback who played college football in the US and eventually started at South Alabama. Bridge has spent the last five years playing in the Canadian Football League.

“I don’t mind (the nickname) but it’s not really mine,” Rourke said. “Every time I hear it, I think of Brandon Bridge.

“But I don’t do the nicknames, I don’t come up with them.”

What Rourke does focus on is anything that he believes will help Ohio win. Getting a first down on a scramble. Getting away from the rush to find a check-down receiver. Checking the right run play at the line of scrimmage. Those are the things that engage him, and all the things that could help with the execution of those concepts.

His nickname, his playing style, his future pro prospects? Those aren’t the focus right now.

“My focus is only moving the chains. I think that’s your role as the quarterback,” Rourke said. “Move the chains, and a willingness to do whatever it takes to do that.

“Anything else is just kind of extra stuff.”

All eyes will be on Rourke this season at Ohio. He’ll be called ‘Air Canada’ more times than he can count. It’s the kind of pressure and attention that comes with being the star quarterback.

But if he wants a new moniker, Hagan is glad to help out.

“I love ’12 Gauge,’” Hagan said, grinning.

The nickname refers to Rourke’s jersey number and his penchant for big throws down the field.

“First, because I created it. And second, ‘12 Gauge’? You know? He’s got a gun on him.”

Email at jarkley@athensmessenger.com; follow on Twitter @JasonAmessenger

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