Intellect, tenacity put Als’ Calvillo in CFL’s Hall of Fame
He wasn’t going to go. Anthony Calvillo was prepared to miss one of the greatest nights a professional athlete can enjoy — his induction into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame — because he was determined to put the team first.
Four years after he played his final game in an Alouettes uniform, the 45-yearold contemplated making the ultimate sacrifice so the newly appointed offensive coordinator could spend yet more time preparing for Sunday’s home game against the Ottawa Redblacks.
It didn’t matter that everyone from Kavis Reed to Marc Trestman told him to attend the ceremony Thursday night at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton — the same hallowed grounds where, two decades earlier, he was brayed off the field by impetuous fans before his release by the Tiger-Cats, his career hanging by a thread after only four seasons.
Calvillo’s mind was made up. But then owners Robert and Andrew Wetenhall made a plane available for Calvillo and his family to attend the event. And perhaps the one thing that most stuck in Calvillo’s mind was Andrew Wetenhall telling him he missed the Als’ 2009 Grey Cup triumph over Saskatchewan because of a business meeting, yet not remembering anything about the meeting he believed at the time to be paramount.
There will always be another meeting, just like there will always be another game. But athletes fortunate enough to make it into the Canadian football shrine — Calvillo was inducted in his first year of eligibility — have only one shot to live the experience.
So he went, as he should have, and was presented with his Hall of Fame jacket by Canadian Football League great Russ Jackson. And then Calvillo spoke for nearly six minutes, choking up only when he thanked his family, particularly wife Alexia and daughters Athena and Olivia. He effused praise on former Als general manager Jim Popp for believing in him when it appeared Calvillo had hit rock bottom, signed by Montreal as a free agent in 1998 to back up Tracy Ham.
You know the rest. Calvillo retired as pro football’s career passing leader, having thrown for 79,816 yards, the equivalent of 73 kilometres. A fivetime CFL all-star and the league’s most outstanding player three times, Calvillo played 20 seasons — 16 with 2017 CFL Football Hall of Famer Anthony Calvillo is a five-time all-star, played 20 seasons and won three Grey Cups. Montreal — winning three Grey Cups. But he might also be remembered for the other five the Als lost during an incredible 11-year run.
It’s only now, years into retirement, when fans see how difficult it has been to replace him, that Calvillo can truly be appreciated for his accomplishments. And what long-suffering Als fan wouldn’t be content with a losing Cup appearance in the near future?
“Everybody has a job to do,” Calvillo said. “You critique us the way you see fit. But doing the things for 20 years ... that’s hard stuff to do. When you’re putting up the yards and winning games, people just expect it. They don’t realize the hard work that goes into it. Playing for 20 years is a special feat. When I tell people, they’re just amazed.”
Calvillo always had athletic ability and a better than average arm. He defied odds by becoming the starting quarterback for Las Vegas in 1994, one of more than a dozen pivots invited to training camp by the expansion team. But the club folded and Calvillo was then plagued by inconsistency in Hamilton.
Released by the Ticats, it wasn’t long before Saskatchewan and Montreal extended contract offers. He probably would have started sooner for the Roughriders, but elected to sign with the Als and learn what it took to truly become a pro.
“It comes down to maturity, experience,” he said. “The ones who are able to mature, grow, be openminded and have tough skin are the ones that are going to be around a while.
“It took a lot of work up here,” he said, pointing to his head. “In this profession, you need it upstairs. If you don’t have it, you’re not going to play a long time.”
In Montreal, he saw the dedication and work put in by Ham, who was near the end of his career. The Als also had tailback Mike Pringle and a strong offensive line. Calvillo quickly came to realize it wasn’t all on his shoulders. That allowed him to grow and understand the game better. And he had coaches like Don Matthews and Trestman who put their trust in him.
“The biggest thing people don’t understand is the pressure that comes with being a pro quarterback. Lives are pretty much in your hands,” he said. “If we’re not playing up to our expectations and doing things that are necessary, a lot of stuff’s going to happen.”
Calvillo’s career has come full circle. The hardships he encountered early as a player are resurfacing three years into his coaching career as the Als struggle for consistency. Much as he led the team to championships as a player, the former QB who appears destined to become Montreal’s head coach is expected to be a saviour once again.
“It’s a tough business,” he said of coaching. “You have to have success to stick around. I was here for so many years because we won a lot of games. It’s been a tough three years, and I’ve been a part of that coaching staff. As much as people see me as part of this organization ... I’ve got to win, just like every coach on this team.
“I want to be here. They know I want to be here, but ... we have to win some games. That’s the most important thing.”