Nathan Rourke stood on the deck outside of the Allen Noble Hall of Fame in the southwest corner of Albertsons Stadium in Boise, Idaho.
He had both a smile on his face and tears welled in the corners of his eyes. In front of him was a field filled with his teammates, coaches, fans and family, all of which were celebrating Ohio’s 30-21 win over Nevada in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in various ways.
He watched his offensive line bite chunks into raw potatoes, and members of the defensive line flexed as they posed for a picture while fellow seniors soaked in their final moments in an Ohio uniform.
Rourke, who was crowned the game’s MVP, had to step away from the celebration and wait for his postgame media obligations. But as he stood there on the deck with his hands grasping the rails, he didn’t know where his football journey was going to go next.
All he knew was he just finished one he’s most proud of.
“There’s a quote from Brett Favre when he won the Super Bowl and he was standing up there saying it was kind of bittersweet to him because “Yeah, we won, but the ride was over,’ and he just wanted it to keep going,” Rourke said. “That’s kind of how I was feeling. I was happy, but at the same time, I wasn’t. I didn’t want to step away. It comes to an end abruptly.”
It’s hard to believe that after three years of countless practice repetitions, rewinding film, lifting weights and putting on the No. 12 jersey, it had a finish line. It seemed farther away than what it was, not just for Rourke, but for his coaches, his teammates and Ohio fans alike.
There’s no longer a need to say perhaps the greatest. Three years ago, when the Oakville, Ontario, Canada native stepped foot into Walter Fieldhouse as an early enrollee, he was just an unproven sophomore who spent a year playing at a junior college in Kansas.
But if you look at what he did in one year at Fort Scott, it would’ve been predictable to see how his career at Ohio would unfold. 2,367 passing yards with 20 touchdowns, and three more on the ground.
Flash forward to now, Feb. 6, 2020. He went from another name on the roster to not only Ohio’s best quarterback in program history, but maybe one of the best to ever play in the Mid-American Conference.
He was the first quarterback to lead the Bobcats to three consecutive bowl wins. He only lost 13 games as a starter. The yards and touchdowns too are immaculate and all of the records rank first in the program: 111 touchdowns responsible for, 49 rushing touchdowns, 10,091 total offensive yards and 7.65 total yards per play.
The resume goes on and on. The records take up nearly a whole page in the game notes.
But none of that ever mattered for Rourke. It truly didn’t. You could’ve harped him consistently about one achievement after another in the last three seasons and the answer was never about him.
But it’s been a month and three days since he last put on the white No. 12 and played for Ohio. Those individual questions, while still a struggle, finally found some answers that shed light onto what he felt about himself. And even more so with the up-and-down year that Ohio (7-6, 5-3 MAC) experienced, he opened up about some of the frustrations he felt.
“We knew we were a much better team than our record showed,” he said. “We had so many games that just came down to the very end. A couple of plays or a couple of moments could’ve made it a completely different season.”
He touched on how in Week 2 against Pitt that the offense could’ve played better. That was a game that Rourke said he wanted badly. How in Week 3 against Marshall, it was a road rivalry game that had people excited, but Ohio left Huntington with a loss and a blown fourth quarter lead.
It was a one possession game against Louisiana-Lafayette with less than half the fourth quarter to go in Week 4, and all three of Ohio’s conference losses were by a combined nine points.
Most of all, the biggest stain on the senior’s season and career was inability to take Ohio to the MAC Championship in Detroit. Narrow losses have kept the program out of the conference championship since 2016.
A homecoming loss to Central Michigan in 2017, a road loss to Miami in 2018 and — even worse — a primetime home loss to Miami on college football’s 150th birthday.
“I got to go twice for MAC Media Day, but that was never the goal,” Rourke said through a chuckle on the phone. “That’s going to bug me. That was the goal every single year, and I thought every single year we could’ve done it.”
And yet, the senior willed on. He still carried himself in a matter where you couldn’t necessarily tell it was a frustrating time to be an experienced quarterback with inexperienced skill players. Instead, he took to heart his role as a two-year captain and set an example on what it means to persevere through struggle.
“Nathan’s ability to lead and his play on the field kept us competitive with a lot of young guys around him,” offensive coordinator Tim Albin said.
The talent around him was young, indeed. The running backs consisted of a redshirt freshman, a redshirt sophomore and a true junior in his first season at Ohio. The wide receivers were a mix of redshirt freshmen and sophomores, sans Cam Odom, a redshirt junior.
Yet, Albin pointed out that there wasn’t much drop off in the end. The 2018 season – which had a cast of characters like A.J. Ouellette, Papi White and Andrew Meyer – averaged 466.8 yards per game. It was 443.3 yards in 2019. The Bobcats averaged 40.1 points in 2018 and 34.7 points last season.
Why no significant drop off?
“Nathan helped us transition,” Albin said. “We didn’t have a huge drop off and Nathan’s got as much to do with that as anybody. I know players around him elevated their play and helped us get through those growing pains.”
It didn’t matter what position someone played. It could’ve been the third string center, the starting cornerback, a scout team linebacker. When Rourke stepped onto the field, there was an intensity that was unrivaled. Offense, defense, special teams, players on either squad saw the example he set and followed their leader.
For most Division I football programs, offensive players stick with the offense and likewise with the defense. But when safety Jarren Hampton was asked to put to words about what it was like to be a teammate of Rourke’s at the end of the Potato Bowl, those tears that Rourke had welled up finally burst.
“He wants to be remembered as a great teammate,” Hampton said. “That’s exactly what he was, a leader, captain.”
“He comes on the field, puts it all out there, works hard. He gives us everything he has. That's why we've been successful in the past.”
And that’s exactly how he wants to be remembered. He’s currently in Nashville training for a chance to continue his dream of playing football. The goal is the NFL no matter what.
To him, it feels like standing out there on that balcony was longer than a month ago. And at the same time, it feels like yesterday. Just a few months ago he was slinging passes to Shane Hooks and Isiah Cox and handing the ball off to O’Shaan Allison and De’Montre Tuggle.
But it’s over, as all things do end eventually. But one thing will remain and that’s that Nathan Rourke left a lasting legacy in which will never be erased. His name is in the same breath as Tyler Tettleton, Ouellette, Tarrell Basham, Mike Mitchell and others who have cemented themselves as Ohio legends.
He doesn’t know where his football journey will take him.
All he knows is that the next one will have a piece of Ohio with it.