Josh Bourke’s hall of fame career literally began at the top of a mountain

How many hall-of-fame football players can say that their first opportunity to play football came while on a vacation at the top of a ski hill? Well, former Montreal Alouettes left tackle Josh Bourke can.

No, seriously. He didn’t suit up in football gear on the ski lift at the Blue Mountain Resort in Ontario or anything like that, but that’s when he and his mom first met a high school football coach from Orchard Lake Saint Mary’s prep school in West Bloomfield Township, Michigan on a ski lift at Blue Mountain.

“I was in Grade 7 at that point, so I still had a year left in grade school,” Bourke explained. “He told us that we should really take a look at this high school. We got home, we set up a visit, we went there, and we toured it. I had to take a test to get in, so luckily, I passed the test, and the rest was just history.”

Things took off (very slowly) after that.

“I didn’t play football until my freshman year in high school,” the two-time Grey Cup champion added. “I didn’t start until my fourth year. I played at the junior varsity level as a third-year athlete, which was embarrassing. I played centre, too, and I could barely snap the ball.”

Bourke showed enough promise that he was able to attend Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan. At first, he received a half scholarship, but it became a full scholarship by his third year.

Things went so well with the Lakers that he ended up signing with the Green Bay Packers as a free agent. Even though his priority was to stick in the NFL, he was aware that the Alouettes had drafted him in the third round of the 2004 CFL Draft.

“I never had a conversation with (former general manager) Jim Popp ahead of time,” the two-time CFL All-Star said about his draft year. “I knew I was eligible for the draft. Of course, I followed it. It was one of those things where I went to class, and I knew the draft was that day. I didn’t know if I was going to get drafted. I thought I could have been drafted second overall or I may not even get drafted. I came back from class, and I thought: ‘Alright, someone likes me a little bit here. Maybe I have some sort of talent, and maybe I can do this if the NFL doesn’t work out.’ It’s nice to know that another team envisioned me as part of their future.”

After being cut by the Packers in 2007, Bourke signed with the Alouettes in August. He was limited to eight games with Montreal that year because he suffered a torn ACL in his knees. After rehabbing throughout the off-season, he came back in 2008 and he quickly turned into a dominant left tackle for the Als.

Marc Trestman took over as head coach of the team ahead of the 2008 season, and they managed to make three straight trips to the Grey Cup starting that year. They lost to Calgary in Montreal in Trestman’s first year, but they came back to beat the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 2009 and 2010.

You don’t win back-to-back titles without being loaded with depth throughout your lineup, and that was the case with those Alouettes teams. They had Anthony Calvillo at quarterback, Avon Cobourne at running back, and quality receivers like Ben Cahoon, Jamel Richardson, Kerry Watkins, S.J. Green and Brian Bratton just to name a few. But the play of the offensive line was crucial to that team’s success.

The group was made up of Bourke, Paul Lambert, Scott Flory, Bryan Chiu, Jeff Perrett, Luc Brodeur-Jourdain, and others during that three-year run. No matter how great an offensive line is, it always seems to be the forgotten piece of championship teams.

“I watch a lot of football, and I always tell people to take a few minutes to look at the game,” Bourke said. “I know the touchdowns are scored by the receivers and the running backs, and the quarterbacks do their thing, but take a few minutes and watch the offensive line. If you have someone that doesn’t know much about football, start there. The rest of the game will make sense based on how they’re doing.

“I would argue that the offensive line is the lifeblood of the team. That and the defensive line. Like Trestman used to say: ‘We want to get after the quarterback and we want to protect the quarterback.’ If you have two strong lines, especially an offensive line, they can make up for a lack of talent. We had tremendous talent at receiver, running back and quarterback, obviously, but a strong offensive line is paramount. It’s definitely one of the reasons we were so successful all those years.”

The 40-year-old spent nine of his 10 seasons in the CFL with the Alouettes. During those nine years, he played in three Grey Cup games, he won two, he was named the East Division’s top offensive lineman twice, and he was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman once (2011). He was also selected as an East Division All-Star every year between 2008 and 2014. That resume speaks for itself.

For those of us who followed the Alouettes closely during those years, it wasn’t shocking to find out that Bourke was going to be part of the 2023 Canadian Football Hall of Fame Class. He played at a high level for a decade, and he dominated at left tackle, which is a position that isn’t typically occupied by a Canadian.

“To be honest with you, I couldn’t really believe at first,” Bourke said of his Hall of Fame nomination. “I had always hoped that one day I’d be honoured by being inducted into the CFL Hall of Fame. I didn’t think it would happen so quickly. Ultimately, I thought I’d get in at some point, but to be surprised by Joey (Alfieri) and Pierre (Vercheval) was just a tremendous experience. In my professional career, I kind of gravitated away from football, which I think was always my plan. That night, I sat down and thought about things. I thought about all the memories, all the great players I played with, and all the great coaches I played for, and the great city of Montreal. I just did a little bit of self-reflecting because it had been a while since I had done that. That’s when it hit home. I’m entering a fraternity of tremendous athletes that played the game at a super high level, and just how lucky I am.”