Mike Benevides became a CFL coach the same year Anthony Calvillo became the Montreal Alouettes’ starting quarterback and, for 14 years, the former has been preoccupied with trying to defence the latter.
In that time, he’s watched Calvillo became the career passing-yards leader in all of professional football.
He’s watched him lead the Alouettes to a cumulative record of 153-81 before this season. He’s also watched him win three Grey Cups and three most outstanding player awards, all while establishing himself as one of the five best quarterbacks ever to play the Canadian game.
Dude, in short, has had a career, but when Benevides thinks about Calvillo, he doesn’t think of the numbers or the achievements or even the sleepless nights he’s cost him.
Instead, he thinks about the man who’s overcome so much in his life, the man who could have and probably should have packed it in several times but, through persistence and strength of character, became the face of the Montreal franchise.
Benevides is a lifelong fan of the CFL game, but he’s also a fan of the qualities Calvillo represents. On that count, he isn’t alone.
“There’s a great lesson there for the young guys in our league,” Benevides said as the Leos prepared for Thursday’s game in Montreal. “You look at how he did it. He was in Las Vegas (with the Posse). He went to Hamilton and it didn’t work. He was a backup in Montreal before he got his chance. Then you look at where he came from (the mean streets of La Puente in Los Angeles).
“The resiliency, the toughness is unbelievable. I’ve always appreciated him as an athlete. As the years have gone by, I’ve been able to appreciate him as a man.”
And now that the curtain is drawing close on Calvillo’s career, we should all take a moment to appreciate the man.
The Als’ resident icon, of course, will not suit up for Thursday’s game. Calvillo, who turns 41 on Friday, suffered a concussion in the Als’ loss in Saskatchewan last weekend and that injury, coupled with his age, does not bode well for either the player or the team. The Als are 2-5. Even before the injury, Calvillo was off to worst start of his career in Montreal.
Add it all up and, without being too morbid, it looks like this could be the end of his journey. So let’s take a moment and, as Benevides suggests, appreciate the man and everything he’s come to mean to the CFL, because it will be a long, long time before we see another one like him.
If you’re at all familiar with Calvillo’s backstory, you’re aware of the Dickensian aspect of his life. Growing up in L.A., he turned to sports over gangs and eventually won a scholarship to Utah State, where he was named MVP of the storied Las Vegas Bowl in his senior year.
This did not get him drafted by an NFL team, but it landed a tryout with the Las Vegas Posse as part of the CFL’s misguided, and hilarious, attempts to expand to the States.
Calvillo was one of 13 quarterbacks brought to camp by the Posse, who laid down their practice field in the parking lot of the Riviera. He would win the starters’ job but, alas, the Posse would fold at the end of their one and only season.
Calvillo, by then 23, landed in Hamilton, where he threw more interceptions than touchdown passes over the next three seasons. He would sign on with the Als as a free agent in 1998 and back up Tracy Ham for two seasons before he took over the starters’ job.
And, at 28 and after seven professional seasons, he became an overnight sensation.
Over the next 13 seasons, the player and the franchise became almost indistinguishable from each other. The Alouettes’ renaissance had started in ’97 when they moved from their death bed at Olympic Stadium to Molson Stadium near downtown Montreal, but it was Calvillo who cemented the relationship between the city and the Als.
His first five seasons as a starter they averaged more than 13 wins a season and the Als became the league’s model franchise.
OK, he probably should have won more than three Grey Cups but, given everything else he accomplished, that’s a small point.
His last championship in 2010 also provided one of the most dramatic moments in the history of the big game when he led the Als to a second-half comeback over Saskatchewan in the cold in Edmonton, then announced he’d have surgery to remove a cancerous lesion on his thyroid.
“What he’s been able to do, the longevity, the championships,” said Benevides. “The organization has put it all on his shoulders. That’s hard when you look behind you and go, ‘Wow, if I’m not here what’s going to happen?’”
And that’s the reality the Alouettes now face.
“I remember when we played him here a couple of years ago, we sacked him 12, 13 times in the game,” Benevides said. “He kept coming back, kept coming back. I’ve seen that for a lot of years.”
It would be nice to see it one more time.
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