How Montreal star Anthony Calvillo has survived two decades of change in the CFL

WINNIPEG—A lot has happened in the last 20 seasons of Canadian football. Back in 1994, the CFL was facing dire financial pressures, and its CFL USA expansion effort to pick up cheques from whoever wanted in was in full swing, leading to teams in Sacramento, Las Vegas, Shreveport and Baltimore that season, most of which didn't work out well. The future looked dire. By contrast, in 2013, the league's back to all Canadian teams, but it's adding a new team in Ottawa next season, it just signed a lucrative new television deal that should provide financial stability for the next five years, it has an impressive televised presence south of the border thanks to deals with NBC Sports Network and ESPN2/ESPN3 and it has new and extensively-renovated stadiums popping up all over the place. It's hard to recognize the CFL of 2013 from as an outgrowth of the CFL of 1994. There is one constant still in place from those days, though: Montreal Alouettes' quarterback Anthony Calvillo.

Of course, Calvillo has changed over the years as well. Back in 1994, he'd beat a rough upbringing to shine at Utah State and make it to the CFL, but he was still just a struggling rookie who with the Las Vegas Posse. Today, he's pro football's all-time leading passer, a man who's beat thyroid cancer, one of the most established figures in the Alouettes' dynasty (behind only long-time GM Jim Popp and owner Robert Wetenhall) and the chief reason that team's expected to shine again this year despite a coaching-staff overhaul. In 1994, Calvillo was more mobile and nimble, but he was just learning how the CFL game worked with its 12-a-side rules, three downs, expanded motion and bigger field. Of course, that last point was only partly the case in Las Vegas, where the Posse played on a field that only had 15-yard end zones instead of 20-yard ones, as that was all that they could fit in their stadium. (They also had an...interesting...take on the Canadian national anthem, which recently saw a much better performance from American players.) Today, Calvillo might not be as quick as he was back then, but spending two decades reading CFL defences has made him a far more effective quarterback overall. That's why he's still able to be a CFL star at age 40 in a vastly different, far more professional league. Calvillo recognizes the changes that have occurred in the CFL over his tenure, and as he said in a press conference Wednesday, being able to take part in the opening game of a spectacular new stadium in Winnipeg 20 years after the CFL looked like it might be going under gave him an incredible feeling.

"To be a part of this history, to be a part of this tradition of new stadiums coming into the CFL, I get the chills just thinking about it," Calvillo said. "I've been around for a long time: in my 20 years, I've seen the history of the CFL. I'm excited about the future of the CFL and to be part of that."

Staying part of the CFL hasn't necessarily been easy for Calvillo, either. There have been discussions for years about when the Alouettes should replace him with a younger quarterback. He's been so consistently effective that he's held off all attempted replacements thus far, but this season has brought further challenges thanks to Montreal head coach Marc Trestman leaving for the NFL's Chicago Bears and offensive coordinator Marcus Brady moving to the Toronto Argonauts. They've been replaced with Dan Hawkins and Mike Miller respectively, neither of whom has a CFL background. Hawkins said Wednesday he's long been incredibly impressed with Calvillo, though, and he's thrilled to have the chance to coach him. He said Calvillo's humility and classiness off the field directly translates into how unselfish and effective he is on the field, and the willingness he's shown to adapt to the new coaching staff's ideas will pay dividends this season.

"You're not a different person on the field than you are off the field," Hawkins said. "All that stuff comes to bear. He's a detail guy, but I think he also has a tremendous amount of humility. He's not a braggadocious person. There's been a lot of change for him and for me as well. He's been very patient with me. As classy as he is on the field, he's even that much more classier off the field."

Calvillo returned that respect for Hawkins in his own press conference Wednesday. He added that having a coaching staff that comes in with an unconventional background gives the Alouettes an edge, too, as Hawkins and Miller have installed some new offensive wrinkles not usually seen in the CFL that defences may be unprepared for.

"We've got a lot of stuff that's brand new to this league," Calvillo said.

Calvillo said the Alouettes' offensive playbook is dramatically different than it had been under Trestman.

"From last year's offence, there are probably maybe two or three of the same concepts that are the same this year," he said. "What I mean by that is say, we called a play "Gopher" last year, we call it "Gopher" this year, but this year, there's been like three plays like that. Everything else has changed."

Calvillo added that the new-look offence is going to incorporate more of a focus on long bombs, vertically stretching the field.

"We're definitely stretching the field a lot more this year, and that's been obvious during camp and during the preseason as well," Calvillo said. "There are a lot of other things we do that are shorter, higher-percentage as well but we do have some routes that are going to be going downfield because that's the philosophy of our new coach. They're maybe not as high of a percentage, but you have the ability to make a big play anywhere on the field. That's the direction we're going in right now, and what's great is that we have the talent across the board to do that. Any of our five receivers can go out and make a catch deep. "

That deep-throwing philosophy was in evidence Thursday night, as Calvillo and the Alouettes succeeded on plenty of long passes, including a crucial 42-yard touchdown strike to S.J. Green in the fourth quarter, an early 26-yard pass to Green that set up their first touchdown and a fourth-quarter 49-yard bomb for Arland Bruce III that fell incomplete, but drew a crucial pass interference flag. Calvillo said after the game Thursday there's a lot of new stuff still to come from this offence, though, as what they showed in that 38-33 win over Winnipeg was only part of their hand:

"It's part of it, it's part of it, but it's a long season and we've got a lot of talent," he said. "Whatever the stuff we showed today, we've got to build on that."

It's not just the playbooks that have changed. Staying in the CFL has required Cavillo to make physical adjustments, too. Buck Pierce made headlines this week for cutting down by 25-30 pounds this offseason, something Calvillo did several years ago to get quicker and more agile. He said that move, which, like Pierce's, was largely accomplished via a healthier diet, has helped him stay competitive and energetic at 40; it's also helped his mental preparation.

"When you're eating properly and you've lost the weight, it's reassuring," Calvillo said. "My energy level changed. The thing I was impressed with was how fast I was able to recover. All of that stuff comes into play in your mind. When you go out there and you know your mind and your body are working together, you can freely play."

There are questions about how just how long that body can hold out, especially considering that Calvillo suffered some significant injuries last season, but after Thursday's game, he said he's feeling good so far except for a sore thumb.

"It feels good, it's been feeling great all year," he said. "In camp, which I enjoyed, I got hit in the thumb, which might be a little sore. Other than that, it's okay."

The CFL is a lot different than it was in Calvillo's early years; in fact, the current league is almost unrecognizable when compared to the CFL at that time. The league once so in danger of folding, once reduced to quick cash grabs of expansion fees in ill-suited places like Las Vegas and Shreveport, now is a titan that dominates TSN's summer broadcast schedule, has TV money flooding in and has impressive new and retrofitted stadiums opening all over the map. Calvillo's been there through it all, though, and while much has changed over his tenure, the CFL's still handing out the historic Grey Cup to its champion each year. Calvillo won that trophy with the Alouettes in 2002, 2009 and 2010, but that's not enough for him. He said he's not desperate, but it's the thought of further Grey Cups that's kept him playing.

"That's what's brought me back," he said.

The CFL's lucky to have such a prominent spectre of its past still playing, but as he showed Thursday, Calvillo may be a vision of its future as well. Yes, his 264-yard, one touchdown (along with one interception and a 57.1 per cent completion rate) showing wasn't perfect, but it was still more than good enough to help the Alouettes pull out a win in an extremely hostile environment. It also let him write another chapter of CFL history in the first game at Winnipeg's new Investors Group Field. Calvillo's been a crucial part of the league for the last 20 years, of course, so this is hardly new, but you reduce him to part of the historical record at your own peril. He seems to still have plenty left, and the final chapters of his CFL story may be well worth reading.