Anthony Calvillo made case for being greatest CFL quarterback ever
The numbers say yes. The longevity, the consistency say yes
Alouettes quarterback Anthony Calvillo holds his daughter Athena as his wife Alexia holds their second daughter Olivia after Calvillo’s retirement announcement in Montreal on Tuesday Jan. 21, 2014.
Photograph by: Pierre Obendrauf, The Gazette
VANCOUVER — Dropback, pocket quarterbacks in the Canadian Football League mostly went out of fashion a long, long time ago. So why didn’t Anthony Calvillo?
Sure, Ricky Ray is still doing it in Toronto, and Danny McManus was successful despite never frightening anyone with his speed, and Kent Austin lit it up in Saskatchewan without ever dazzling an opponent with footwork.
But they, and precious few others, were the exceptions.
How come a league that lauded Jackie “Spaghetti Legs” Parker as the player of the first half of the 20th century, that celebrated scrambling Doug Flutie as its all-time No. 1 player in the first decade of the 21st, that gave us Warren Moon, the classic passer with tailback speed, and elusive little Ronnie Lancaster and run/pass Hall of Famers like Damon Allen, Tracy Ham, Matt Dunigan, Tom Clements and Condredge Holloway didn’t figure out a way to neutralize lead-footed Anthony Calvillo until he was literally kayoed by a concussion at age 41?
Was he just the toughest quarterback for all that time, or the smartest? Or the most accurate? Or was he the best who ever played the position in the CFL?
The numbers say yes. The longevity, the consistency say yes.
And yet Calvillo, the old gunslinger who retired Tuesday in Montreal — a three-time Grey Cup champion and three-time CFL most outstanding player, having passed for nearly 80,000 yards and broken every record that mattered in a career that dated all the way back to the Las Vegas Posse — has always suffered by comparison to sexier QBs with more moves, more speed, more “wow” factor.
You don’t think so? He was 34 years old, 13 seasons into his CFL career — longer than most quarterbacks last; about to play in his fourth Grey Cup, with two CFL all-star selections and an MVP already in his pocket — when TSN did its comprehensive 2006 poll of GMs, coaches, ex-players and media from across many generations to choose the top 50 players of all time.
And Calvillo didn’t even make the cut.
Seven years later, it’s: Calvillo or Flutie?
To me, it’s like asking who was better, Wayne Gretzky or Bobby Orr? Can you deny the overwhelming numbers, the records, the achievements over a 20-year career, or can you never forget the guy who brought you out of your seat every time he played ... and then was gone, too soon?
All that can be said with certainty is that nobody on the list of names mentioned in this column ever had the backstory that Anthony Calvillo had. Nobody came from a more unlikely place, survived a more absurd beginning to his pro career, or did more with a limited toolbox.
He was a pair of black, high-top cleats from being Johnny Unitas, The Golden Arm of the 1950s-60s Baltimore Colts. You knew just where he was going to be, back there in the pocket, but try to stop him from beating you.
Over the years, the highlight of many a Grey Cup — and there were eight of them for Calvillo, of which the Alouettes won three — was sitting at his table at breakfast and listening to this thoroughly nice and humble man tell stories about his days growing up in a poor Mexican family amid the street gangs in East L.A., managing to get to Utah State, finishing his college days without a pro offer and assuming his career was over until his college coach, Jim Zorn, encouraged him to find out who had his CFL rights.
It turned out to be the expansion team in Las Vegas, and here was my favourite Calvillo story ....
"It was my first experience in professional ball, so I thought it was all normal — playing in that [Sam Boyd] stadium, practising in the casino parking lot, living at the Riviera, playing in that kind of heat, drawing 1,000 fans ... but when I look back at it now, of course it was not," he said.
"It was hot out there. Guys used to take bets on when the new players would pass out. Because at some point, everyone would."
The players made $50 a week in camp (he would try to parlay it into $100 at the blackjack tables), and $22,000 a year once the season started. Calvillo, being a quarterback, made $35,000.
"At the beginning, we had like 20-25,000 fans showing up, but as the season went along it just kept dipping lower and lower, and our last regular season game was supposed to be at home against Edmonton, and they moved it," he said. "They said we're going to go play it in Edmonton, and split the gate. I think that's how we got paid our last game cheque."
When the team folded, Calvillo had to wait for his bonus until the following spring, "and I was broke. A lot of my friends were from Hawaii and I had nothing else to do so I went to Honolulu and waited tables at a Tex-Mex restaurant until the cheque came — and I'll tell you, I gained a new respect for waiters. I used to be a pretty tight tipper before that."
That was Calvillo, so humble, so ... normal. And so aptly described by L.A. Times columnist Bill Plaschke: “Latino features on a face of stone, a guy who more closely resembles an aging baseball reliever than someone who holds the most glamorous record at football's most glamorous position.”
Understated, unprepossessing, maybe under-appreciated, Calvillo finally got his due on Thanksgiving Day, 2011, when he broke Damon Allen’s all-time passing record for pro quarterbacks ahead of Brett Favre and Moon and Dan Marino.
The tributes poured in then, just as they did Tuesday when, his voice failing him, he tearfully made it official that he was done. From coach Marc Trestman, who said he’d never have got the Chicago Bears job without Calvillo’s brilliance in their Montreal years together, to current and former teammates and coaches and opponents, they all respected the player, but equally saw the genuine goodness of the man.
They saw a guy who walked away from football in 2007 to be with his wife Alexia when she was diagnosed with cancer, who survived thyroid cancer himself in 2010, who never had a single false air about him and remained as down-to-earth as any great player, in any era, in any sport.
They saw a guy who wants to coach some day, but not yet, because first he wants to have a whole summer with his wife and two daughters, to finish an online college degree, to work as an intern for the club in order to earn business credits.
Yes. Professional football’s all-time leading passer is doing that.
Was he the CFL’s greatest player? Does it matter? He was pretty damned great.
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