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The Return of the Jets

The Best Passing Quarterback Ever

It's just too bad Anthony Calvillo plays in the CFL

The quarterback won a championship and went to Disneyland, and no one really noticed he was there. The few who did were polite and courteous, and they took pictures and shook his hand and walked away, and it is at moments like these that Anthony Calvillo finds himself thankful that he never made it anywhere near a Super Bowl. “I don’t think Peyton Manning could take his kids to Disneyland,” says his wife, Alexia. “I’ll bet it would actually be dangerous.”

On Monday1, presuming he throws for at least 258 yards, this man you’ve probably never heard of will become the leading passer in the history of professional football. He has accumulated more yards than Peyton Manning, more yards than Dan Marino, more yards than John Elway and Jim Kelly and Fran Tarkenton and Joe Montana and Brett Favre, and he has done it all without ever being even marginally famous in the United States. This in itself is a remarkable accomplishment. That he is 39 years old and still considered one of the two or three best players in his adopted country is another. That he has continued to play football even after both he and his wife fought cancer is still another. Not only is Anthony Calvillo the most prolific anonymous quarterback who ever lived, his is one of those great American stories, an epic tale of failure and adversity and redemption. It just happened to take place in Canada.

A confession: Until midsummer, I had no idea who Anthony Calvillo was, either. But I’ve long harbored a fascination with the Canadian Football League, with its colorful nicknames (Eskimos and Blue Bombers and Argonauts) and its bizarro edicts (110 yards instead of 100, three downs instead of four, 12 men instead of 11), with the idea that there is a league just like ours and yet completely different, as if it were birthed on an alternate plane of reality. Is there a more apt metaphor for how America sees Canada than how Americans view the CFL? Most of our knowledge is acquired out of desperation and boredom; the CFL regular season starts in June, when we are jonesing hard for football, and when it does show up on our television — say, on an otherwise idle Friday night on the NFL Network — it is more Rube Goldberg than Vince Lombardi, because of its extra-man-per-side and its stretched field and because it allows us to reconnect with former college standouts we had otherwise forgotten. In Canada, Ken-Yon Rambo and Avon Cobourne are stars. Every so often, some underevaluated or late-blooming talent will find his way from CFL to NFL stardom (we may refer to this as the Warren Moon Exception, of which the most recent example is the Miami Dolphins’ Cameron Wake), but this is such a rare phenomenon that it still seems like a hiccup in the system when it happens. The truth is nobody in the United States grows up dreaming of winning a Grey Cup.

Of course, I realize that the previous paragraph is a biased assessment of the CFL. I realize that Canadian professional football has its own rich history, and that it holds a unique place in the Canadian psyche that, as an American, I could not begin to adequately characterize. But part of what makes the CFL so charming is that I’m not sure Canadians can really characterize it, either: Author Steve O’Brien’s book about the CFL (subtitle: The Phoenix of Professional Sports Leagues) — one of the only comprehensive league histories I could find — begins by paraphrasing Winston Churchill’s “riddle wrapped inside a mystery inside an enigma” quote, discusses for 300 pages the league’s errors of judgments and perceived inferiority complex, and ends with a quote from Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” about not knowing what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. When I told the customs agent at the Montreal airport that I was a sportswriter, he assumed I was here to cover a tennis tournament, and when I told him I was here to write about Canadian football, he stared hard at my passport, crooked his head, and said, “Really? You know it’s not very good, right?”

And so I think it’s fair to say that Anthony Calvillo, who has played for the Montreal Alouettes since 1998, is famous in certain Canadian households and a complete unknown in others. Of the top nine passers in the history of North American professional football,2 Calvillo’s name is the least recognizable. He is not an NFL icon, and he is not the brother of a Pro Football Hall of Famer (as is the longtime CFL star Damon Allen, brother of Marcus), and as far as I know he’s never had a cereal named after him (as with Doug Flutie, who acquired yards and fame both north and south of the border). He gets recognized on the street by fans, and yet a vast number of Montrealers have no idea that his team even exists. His own wife, born and raised in this city, had never heard of the Alouettes until she began dating Calvillo. When I tried to get a cab driver to take me to the stadium on a game night, I had to show him on a map. Then he asked if I was going to a handball match. “I didn’t know anything about the CFL myself,” Calvillo says. “Not until I started playing in it.”

This summer, as the NFL players were locked out and the season appeared to be in jeopardy, I wondered if the CFL would have a crossover moment in America, as it did during the players’ strike of 1982, when the networks were desperate for something to fill the empty hours on Sunday. Anthony Calvillo thought about that, too. How could he not? He grew up in East Los Angeles, the grandson of Mexican immigrants, and like the rest of us, he dreamed of someday playing quarterback in the NFL, though it never seemed a particularly realistic goal. Upon graduating from La Puente High School, Calvillo had no scholarship offers, so he attended Mt. San Antonio, a local junior college; after two years at Mt. San Antonio, Calvillo had three offers: one from Louisiana Tech, one from Southern Illinois, and one from Utah State. His size was the primary issue: Calvillo is listed at 6-foot-1, one inch taller than Drew Brees (and at least three inches taller than Doug Flutie), but this was the early ’90s, when “short” quarterbacks were still considered anathema. The other schools seemed too far away from Los Angeles, and so Calvillo committed to Utah State, where the offensive coordinator was Jim Zorn and the coach was Charlie Weatherbie, who played for a season with the Edmonton Eskimos.

“The guy had ice water in his veins,” Weatherbie says of Calvillo. “Bombs could go off around him and he wouldn’t even see it. He could throw in the pocket, and he was a great decision-maker. We’d throw something like 46 times a game.”

In Calvillo’s senior season, he threw for 3,148 yards and 19 touchdowns, and Utah State won the Big West Conference championship and defeated Ball State in the Las Vegas Bowl. Still, no one in the NFL showed much interest. “They just didn’t think he could see well enough in the pocket,” Weatherbie says. Zorn made inquiries to the CFL, and an expansion team called the Las Vegas Posse put Calvillo on its negotiating list, meaning he’d have to try out with them if he wanted to play. This was a watershed moment for the league, as it had decided to expand into America, primarily out of financial desperation (which is always the foundation for a sound business strategy). Teams sprouted up in Shreveport and Sacramento and Baltimore, as well, and no one seemed to understand exactly why this was happening or what it meant or how the hell Canadian football was actually played. The people were vaguely curious, and then Labor Day came around and they forgot it existed.

Calvillo had already presumed he would seek out a job as a coach and teacher, but he went to the tryout in Vegas nevertheless. As he remembers it, there were 13 quarterbacks in camp, from Oklahoma and Illinois and Northwestern, names he can still recite — “guys I watched on TV,” he says. “I thought, OK, I’m not gonna compete with them. But after that first day, and after I saw them throwing, I knew right away that I could compete.”

Calvillo not only made the team; he became the starting quarterback. The Posse practiced in the parking lot of a casino and played their games in 120-degree weather before an ever-dwindling fan base (their largest crowd all season was 12,000). They played one season, went 5-13, and folded. In 1996, as Art Modell completed his backroom negotiations to move the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore, the CFL’s American experiment met its inevitable demise. The Baltimore Stallions wound up in Montreal, and Calvillo, thrown into the league’s dispersal draft, played three middling seasons in Hamilton, Ontario, before moving to Quebec, where both he and the franchise appeared to have equally indeterminate futures. In his first season with the Alouettes, Calvillo threw six touchdown passes and 10 interceptions, and then everything changed: The Alouettes adapted to their identity just as their quarterback adapted to the CFL.

They sell smoked-meat sandwiches at Alouettes games, and while this should not come as a surprise, it is a wonderful regional anomaly. Smoked meat (salted and cured beef brisket piled to excess on a couple of hapless slices of rye bread) is to Montreal as cheesesteaks are to Philadelphia, the defining food of a city with a myriad of artery-clogging establishments, including a place called Au Pied de Cochon, where the specialty of the house is a lobster crammed inside a pig’s head, and where the waiters periodically towel the grease off the fixtures. To outsiders, Montreal is a city of indulgences, a haven for youthful misbehavior and sloppy bachelor parties, and the crowd at the Alouettes game reflects that. They are here for a good time, to consume Canadian beer and smoke cigarettes on the concourse and bask in the evening; for many of them, the action on the field seems a secondary concern. The stadium is a gathering place.

And it is a beautiful stadium, nearly 100 years old, named after Percival Molson, a prolific athlete who was killed by a German howitzer during World War I. Until 1998, the Alouettes played at a half-filled Olympic Stadium, the staid and cavernous dome that the Montreal Expos called home, but in 1998 (the same year Calvillo arrived) they were forced to host a playoff game at Molson Stadium because of a U2 concert, and they never went back. It’s not really an exaggeration to say U2 rescued football in Montreal: By embracing the intimacy of their new home (with a capacity of 25,000 rather than 56,000) and its stunning views of the city skyline, the Alouettes have found a niche. To get to Molson Stadium you walk up the steep incline of Mont Royal, past the dormitories and science labs of McGill University, past worn fraternity houses, past a pair of husky scalpers whose Expos jerseys are one of the few things that separate this walk from the one you might make on a Saturday afternoon in South Bend or Ann Arbor or Tuscaloosa. The other, of course, is that people are speaking French.

Hearing a French public address announcer at a football game is like listening to a version of Remembrance of Things Past as read by John Facenda. It doesn’t make intuitive sense. (If someone spoke French at an SEC game, it might spark a riot.) But this is Canada, and leaving aside for a moment the intricate French-Canadian politics that define Quebec as a province, the CFL was constructed by splitting differences: first with British rugby and then with American football, producing “a uniquely Canadian version that evolved through protracted compromise,” according to the sociologist Robert Stebbins. Ever since abandoning America and paring its membership down to eight teams, the CFL has tried to emphasize Canadian nationalism in its marketing.3 An advertisement on the JumboTron melds together sepia-toned footage of dudes tromping through the snow and hoisting the Grey Cup over their heads before fading into the slogan: Notre Ligue. Notre Football. (Our League. Our Football.) Hence the three downs instead of four, and the 12 men per side instead of 11, and that cavernous playing area (110 yards plus a 20-yard end zone on each side, and 65 yards wide rather than 53⅓), and the goal posts set at the front of the end zone, and the unlimited motion in the backfield preplay, and little idiosyncratic touches like fluorescent penalty flags.4 I went to see Calvillo play against the Edmonton Eskimos in August, and every time I felt like I was settling into watching a football game something odd would happen: A 12-yard field goal or a second-and-10 from the 52 or a score of 20-4.

That “4″ was put up not because the Eskimos sacked Calvillo twice in the end zone, but because of the novelty concept known as the single, or rouge: One point is awarded when the ball is kicked into the end zone by any legal means other than a made field goal, and the receiving team is unable to scuttle the ball out of the end zone by either running or kicking it back out, which can lead to a back-and-forth straight out of Benny Hill. As an American, you probably find the rouge an idiotic perversion of the game, and I wouldn’t blame you. Even Canadians are self-conscious about the rouge, and there’s been discussion about abolishing it. Thirty years later, the rouge was the first thing Charlie Weatherbie mentioned when I asked him about adapting to the peculiarities of the CFL.

“For me, the biggest thing to adjust to [in this league] was the size of the field,” Calvillo says. “I learned right away that there are certain throws you just should not make because of the size of the field. Like the out route — it’s a 40-yard throw and the ball stays in the air forever. At first, I just ran the play that the coaches presented to us. Looking back at it now, you just do what you’re told. It wasn’t until I got older that I learned the philosophy of what you’re trying to do as an offense.”

Calvillo is not very big — he is listed at 213 pounds — and he struggles against pressure, but when he finds a rhythm he is still the best quarterback in the CFL: In a September game against Hamilton, he completed 31 of 45 passes for 421 yards and four touchdowns. He leads the league in touchdown passes, passing yards, and quarterback efficiency. He happens to wear Kurt Warner’s no. 13, and this almost seems like too obvious a comparison given their equally improbable backstories, but it’s hard not to make it anyway. The CFL’s rules place a premium on the passing game; with three downs and unlimited motion, every offensive coordinator has to think a little bit like Mike Martz,5 and Calvillo has completed more than 60 percent of his throws every year since 2003. That’s the advantage of a wide-open field: An open receiver has a tremendous amount of room to run, and Calvillo has a knack for finding his wideouts in space. It’s what’s enabled him to anchor a dynasty in Montreal.

Since 2000, Calvillo has played in eight Grey Cups; in 2002, the Alouettes beat Edmonton 25-16, but Calvillo completed only 11 of 31 passes, and after he lost four more Grey Cup games between 2003 and 2008, he became something of a tragic figure among the media,6 a nice guy who got lucky once and looked like he might never win the big game again.7 “For a long time, all people wanted to talk about was those games, those games, those games,” Calvillo says. “The one thing I told myself is that I was never going to quit on it. I was never going to give up. And the last two years, people aren’t talking about those losses anymore.”

Now, after two straight Grey Cup victories, people have begun to ask Calvillo about retirement. Now he has become Brett Favre without the tabloid sleaze, and people want to know how much longer he can keep doing this, and Calvillo has come to embrace the publicity he gets rather than guarding himself from view. (He’s not making NFL money, but he is making enough to live comfortably.) In 2007, his wife was diagnosed with lymphoma, and she insisted that he keep playing rather than sit in a hospital room with her; last offseason, Calvillo announced that he’d been diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and he had surgery but never really thought about quitting. He says that he’s in the best shape of his career. He’s given up gluten and dairy products and sugar, and he’s working with a local trainer who promised him no more pulled hamstrings, and so far it’s worked. “When I started this [regimen] going into the 2009 season, after every game, I felt like I could go play another one,” he says. “Which was sick, because I’d never felt like that before. This year, it’s taken me a bit more to maintain my body. With the thyroid surgery, they had to cut some muscle in my shoulder, and that’s made it even tighter.”

He knows the end is coming soon. He just isn’t ready for it to happen yet. Nine years ago, Calvillo had a brief window open with the NFL; he met with the Jaguars and the Seahawks (he calls those workouts “ridiculous,” and says they were more meet-and-greets than actual opportunities), but he had a real chance to catch on with the Steelers, who were starting Tommy Maddox and preparing to jettison Kordell Stewart. If Charlie Batch signs elsewhere, they told him, they’d bring him in as a backup. And then Batch re-signed and the window closed, and Calvillo went back to Canada, back to that alternate reality, back into a world where quarterbacks may not make NFL money but can also walk unmolested through the streets of their own city.

“I remember him saying to me, ‘What boy doesn’t dream of one day being the best in the world?’” Alexia recalls. “He said, ‘I know I could play down there, but you have to be given the right chance at the right moment.’ I think there was some disappointment, but it wasn’t like he was looking for a job. He knew he had a good thing going here. This was his life. And we’re just normal people moving through life like everyone else. Our daughter lined one of his trophies with princess stickers, and he refuses to remove those stickers.”

On this night in August, Montreal beats Edmonton 27-4, and Calvillo throws for 261 yards and is unhurt despite absorbing one of those frightening hits in which his legs get bent back in a direction that legs aren’t meant to bend. (When I ask him if he attributes this to his conditioning program, he tells me he attributes it to luck.) When it’s over, the Alouettes emerge from a cramped locker room and sign autographs, and one woman delivers a tin of cookies to her favorite player, and it all feels a lot like the aftermath of a high school football game in Ohio. Calvillo is one of the last to emerge, and we stand out near the middle of the field and remark on its sheer scope. He’d told me earlier about the advice Doug Flutie gave him when he was thinking about jumping to the NFL (“The media is 10 times worse, because there’s so many more of them”), and he told me that he didn’t want his records to be compared to those of Favre or Montana or any of the others, and he told me that he no longer worried whether people in America knew who he was.

“This is it,” he says, and he throws his arms up into the vast expanse, a man who has come to relish the compromise.

Michael Weinreb is a Grantland staff writer and the author, most recently, of Bigger Than the Game: Bo, Boz, the Punky QB and How the ’80s Created the Modern Athlete.


Previously from Michael Weinreb:
The Saturday Agenda
The Quarterback Quandary

Annoying Boise State
The Rise of Indiana Football
Where is Micheal Ray Richardson?

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