Documentaries on Chuck Ealey, Anthony Calvillo show how the CFL’s about more than a game

TSN promised to look at spectacular stories that transcended the CFL with their Engraved On A Nation documentary series, and through the first three, they've more than delivered. The 13th Man got the series off to an excellent start with a thorough look at how much football means to the people of Saskatchewan, viewed through the prism of the Riders' crushing 2009 Grey Cup loss, but the next two stories have certainly been worthy successors, and have been perhaps even better. What's perhaps most fascinating is that although Stone Thrower: The Chuck Ealey Story (which first aired Oct. 12) and The Kid From La Puente (which first aired Oct. 18) are set decades apart, focus on central figures from different races and are set in different parts of the U.S., they feel like two halves of the same story. In some contexts, that could feel repetitive and boring, but not here; these stories are so remarkable, and the way they go beyond football to bring us the lives of quarterbacks Chuck Ealey, Anthony Calvillo and their families is so powerful, that they instead serve as perfect counterpoints. Together, these films show an incredible side of the CFL, and just how much it can mean to some of its players.

Stone Thrower: The Chuck Ealey Story focuses on the issues of discrimination Ealey faced growing up on the wrong side of the tracks in Portsmouth, Ohio. The film's centred around his trip back there with daughter Jael Ealey Richardson as part of the research for her book about her journey learning about her father's experiences, and a comment she makes in the film, "His life really seemed touched from the beginning in a way that was meant to be written about," soon proves to be quite true. The film's title comes from how Ealey used to practice his throwing motion, chucking rocks at the N or the W in the logo on Norfolk and Western freight cars as they'd roll through town. The scene of him explaining this to her is incredible, and director Charles Officer really uses it to illustrate Ealey's perseverance and motivation to succeed against the odds. (It's also returned to later, with a beautiful sequence cutting back and forth between Ealey's 1971 Grey Cup passes and old-school footage of rocks flying at the train.)

As the documentary shows, though, the odds were incredibly steep. Ealey was born in 1950, so he dealt with some harsh segregation growing up, and a particularly poignant story he tells is about how the local pool kept him and other black children out. That led to one of his cousins who couldn't swim trying to cool off in an quarry during a heat wave and drowning, and that led to Ealey and others invading the whites' pool in a protest. They were arrested for their trouble, but Ealey says it made a difference. "It pulled the community together to take a stand, to see that what had taken place was not necessarily right." From that, you get the sense that this is a guy who isn't going to just go along with an unfair system, and that colours most of how his story plays out.

Ealey attended a private Catholic high school in Portsmouth, Notre Dame, but not because he had money. In fact, he'd work there when not in classes to earn his tuition. Ealey showcased his gridiron talents there, though, and even though most coaches still weren't in favour of black quarterbacks, his coach cared enough about winning to give him a chance. Despite a state championship, Ealey was passed over as a quarterback by most universities, though, and only was given a chance to play there by Toledo. There, he became a Mid-American Conference legend, setting a still-standing record of 35 straight wins over his final three years. Despite that, though, Ealey was only looked at as a defensive back by the NFL, and after he boldly told that league in a letter that he only wanted to play quarterback, he went undrafted.

In a well-explored parallel to the Underground Railroad, though, Ealey then travelled to Canada and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. There, he followed in the footsteps of famed black players like Bernie Custis and Cookie Gilchrist, and he went on to lead the team to glory in the hometown 1971 Grey Cup. Ealey only played until 1978 after suffering a collapsed lung, but his career was still remarkable, especially for what it did to prove that black quarterbacks could play in the CFL. As he said, "I was the first African-American quarterback to win the Grey Cup and it opened up the floodgates." Indeed it did; Ealey's story's a key part of why players like Warren Moon, Condredge Holloway and Damon Allen were given chances to succeed up north, and it's great to see him get some recognition here.

Calvillo's story takes place several decades later, but the parallels are uncanny. It's narrated by his brother Mario, and it's also about a return to the area where Calvillo grew up. Instead of the projects of Portsmouth, though, he grew up in first an extremely rough area of East Los Angeles proper (where Mario said "going to the laundromat could get you shot"), and then in the suburb of La Puente, where violence and gangs were still prevalent. Ealey's father was largely absent from his life; Calvillo's was present, but not in a positive way. The documentary reveals that his father drank and beat his mother, eventually leading to their separation, and that made things extremely tough for Anthony, older brother David and younger siblings Mario and Nadine. Much like Ealey, he worked out a lot of his frustration with the world on the sports field, saying "From the time I went up til the time I went to sleep, I always had some kind of ball in my hand."

The film explores a lot of the anguish Calvillo went through as a child, including his father's domestic abuse and his brother David getting caught up with a local gang (which eventually led to him being sentenced to 16 years in jail for second-degree murder thanks to being present at a killing). He found ways to overcome, though, shining on the football field, and he set everything aside in pursuit of his dream, even moving in with a friend and teammate after his family moved so he could continue to play for the same school. Despite an impressive high school career, though, many didn't think a "skinny little Mexican kid from La Puente" could play at a high level, and he wound up at Mt. San Antonio Junior College. There, he caught the attention of former NFL and CFL quarterback Jim Zorn, who was about to switch from quarterbacks coach at Boise State to offensive coordinator at Utah State, and convinced Utah State head coach Charlie Weatherbie to recruit Calvillo before he even took the new job. Zorn's interviewed here, and that really adds a lot to the documentary; his perspective shows a lot about what makes Calvillo so special.

Calvillo's astounding CFL success, which led to him becoming pro football's all-time leading passer last year, is almost taken as read these days, so one of the smart choices director Shelley Saywell makes is to not dwell on it. She hits the highlights, including Calvillo's Grey Cup victories and his various records, but focuses more on the incredible challenges he faced even after getting to the league. Particularly of note to CFL fans will be his comments on his early struggles in Hamilton, "To lose in that city is very tough, and I did not want to be there at all." The sections on how he dealt first with his wife's battle with cancer and then discovered that he had cancer himself (but hid it from almost everyone until after winning the 2010 Grey Cup) are particularly poignant, and they reinforce his toughness and his ability to persevere through incredible odds.

That's perhaps the most important attribute Calvillo and Ealey have in common. Both grew up in situations where many struggled just to stay alive, and both showed unbelievable persistence despite being overlooked and written off at every step. The CFL's long been a league where those kinds of players have made a remarkable impact, and the opportunities it provided were crucial for both of them. They didn't do it alone; when Calvillo comes back to La Puente, he breaks down crying during a speech, saying "I've taken so much for granted. ... There are so many people in this room that have helped me get to the point where I am today," and the way Ealey interacts with old teammates carries some similarities.

These players overcame an incredible amount to get to the CFL and shine there, and the interesting thing about juxtaposing these documentaries is how it shows that these stories aren't just past history from Ealey's day. Yes, progress has been made on giving black quarterbacks a fair shot (although there are still some issues there, and there are still racial issues everywhere, including the sports media), but there are still plenty of players for whom football's the only way out of a tough situation and there are still players who are overlooked at every level. For some of them, the CFL provides a golden opportunity that goes well beyond just a game, and that's perfectly shown in both documentaries. As Mario Calvillo says, "Canada has embraced Anthony, and Anthony's very grateful." As Ealey's wife Sherri adds, "We wanted to stay here. We're Americans by birth, we're Canadians by choice."