FranÃ§ais LOGIN // Name Password Remember me
TRANSFORMATION OF A CFL GREAT NOW COMPLETE
Saturday, November 26, 2005 - 06:30PM
Calvillo once knew as little about the CFL as its teams and fans knew about him
By Wayne Scanlan,
It's hard to reconcile today's Anthony Calvillo with that other one, the scrawny 22-year-old training with his Posse in a Las Vegas hotel casino parking lot.
"Being in Las Vegas was my first experience with professional ball," Calvillo says, in the hours leading up to his fourth Grey Cup game as quarterback of the Montreal Alouettes.
"So, I thought living at the Riviera Hotel and practising in the parking lot was normal. Later, you find out it's not too normal.
"Training camp was very hot, but the food was good because we were able to eat the buffet at the Riviera."
So long as they took their cleats off.
Ah, the CFL's wild west days, when wagons were circled and anthem singers played shoot-'em-up with O Canada. A player had to live it to believe it. The year was 1994. The Alouettes were dormant, and the Ottawa Rough Riders were on life support, but here were U.S. expansion teams in places such as Shreveport, Sacramento, Baltimore and, yes, Vegas.
Calvillo, a basketball and football star at La Puente High School in California, was a throwing quarterback out of Utah State, which he left after two seasons.
The Posse signed him as a free agent in April '94 for the grand sum of $35,000 U.S. Dripping wet from the Riviera pool, Calvillo didn't carry more than 175 pounds on his 6-2 frame. Camp two-a-days then meant a morning session at Sam Boyd Stadium and evening drills on the Riviera parking lot, a makeshift, L-shaped "field" of fresh dirt and sod.
"I thought, 'OK, this is professional football,'" Calvillo says. "This is how it's handled. I
didn't understand how an organization was supposed to be run. I showed up, played and collected my cheque at the end of the week."
Even then, the guy could throw.
Ottawa football fans remember Calvillo and the Posse showing up at Frank Clair Stadium after a botched 14-hour commercial road trip.
"The Iditarod route," coach Ron Meyer called it. When they finally arrived, after detours through Phoenix and Cincinnati, and a bus from Montreal, the players were so tired they lay down on the turf. But in the game, Calvillo filled the sky with footballs. Final score in overtime: Riders 54, Posse 50.
The league knew as little about Calvillo as he knew about the league. He almost sounds embarrassed to admit it.
"I didn't know about the history of the CFL," he says. "I really didn't appreciate it. When we played Sacramento, it was the first time in CFL history that two U.S. teams were playing. I didn't understand the names, like Gizmo Williams."
Calvillo hadn't seen a CFL game live until he played in one. What he knew was that he needed to throw and score as in any football league. Some nights, like the one in Ottawa, he lit it up. Other times, he fell flat. The Vegas CFL line was 5-13-0, good for last place in a six-team West Division. Crowds stayed away in droves.
When the Vegas CFL experiment predictably failed, Calvillo was Hamilton's first overall pick in the Posse dispersal draft.
Calvillo improved, lifting his completion rate to 54 per cent from 44. A passing grade. Too bad he felt like hell at the end of an 8-10 season. He was nicked, his weight was down to 180, close to his early Posse days, and he had "no arm strength whatsoever."
Hamilton was a bad football team, not a good place for a young quarterback.
"At that time, I didn't realize it," he says. "I was still going through my growing pains, too. Now that I look back at it, the offensive linemen were at the end of their careers, like four of them. That didn't help whatsoever."
After going 2-16 in 1997, the Ticats cut him loose. Calvillo felt burnt out, physically and mentally. He wondered if had what it took to be a starter. Showing wisdom beyond his 25 years, he opted for a backup role behind Tracy Ham with the Als in '98 rather than playing time with Saskatchewan, his other option.
"I figured, 'Well, Montreal has an established organization and a great quarterback,'" Calvillo says. "I'd never had the opportunity to learn behind a Grey Cup quarterback. I wanted to take a step back, go over there and see what it's all about. So, it has definitely paid off."
He laughs out loud as he says it.
At the time, though, it was hard to swallow his athletic pride and slip into the back seat. By 2000, everything had fallen into place. Ham was gone and Calvillo was getting stronger, working out in the off-season with some pals in Hawaii.
"That's when I realized this is a 12-month commitment, physically and mentally," Calvillo says. "That came with experience and maturity, and seeing other guys do it."
And so the transformation was taking place. Calvillo started looking less like that scrawny kid in Vegas and more like the 205-pound, rock-solid, 33-year-old quarterback of today, an emerging CFL legend married to a Quebec woman.
Defences aren't safe against him. Neither are the cherished club records of Sam Etcheverry, which Calvillo now owns by the bushel. This was his fourth straight season of at least 5,000 yards passing. In 2004, he broke through 6,000 to trail only Doug Flutie and Kent Austin for single-season rank.
Though a prolific passer, Calvillo has thrown 20-plus interceptions in just one of his 12 seasons -- with the 1995 Ticats. He is fourth all time with 44,728 passing yards and fourth in completions.
Critically, Calvillo has also learned when to say no.
"When you're young, you challenge DBs. And as you get older, you start to smarten up a bit. You say, 'You know what? It's not that bad to punt the ball. It's really not.' You start to evaluate: 'OK, interception, change the momentum,' or, 'Let's punt the ball and see what our defence can do.'"
Calvillo believes his game went to a new level when coach Don Matthews arrived in 2002, encouraging A.C. to call his own plays. Now, Calvillo sees himself as a third "offensive co-ordinator," alongside Doug Berry and Kevin Strasser.
Calvillo sells them on plays he dreams up, sometimes needing to demonstrate them at practice to prove, or disprove, their potential.
According to Matthews, people don't appreciate all that Calvillo does on a football field, including directing traffic.
"He calls formations to get the players in the right positions, so that their skills can be used in a certain way," Matthews says. "His management of personnel has increased every year ... it's more complicated than he makes it seem because he's so good at it. But for somebody else who's not good at it, it would be a nightmare."
What makes Calvillo so good?
"It's definitely not a few things," says Montreal slotback Ben Cahoon. "It's the whole package. The preparation he puts in. It's his vision. His arm strength. Plus a dozen other things. It's not like he relies on any one aspect of his game."
When Calvillo felt his team needed a lift before the East semifinal against Saskatchewan, he called the first players-only meeting of the season, encouraging his mates to follow his lead. They did, and then again in the East final in Toronto.
Despite his MVP award in 2003 and a Grey Cup MVP the year before, there's a sense that Calvillo isn't fully appreciated as the CFL superstar he has become.
Maybe he'll go the Damon Allen route, play until he's 40 and bask in late glory.
"When it's all said and done, Anthony Calvillo is going to be sitting right there on top, with the best quarterbacks this league has ever seen," Cahoon says. "And then he'll receive his due."