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Anthony Calvillo's career may or may not be coming to an end thanks to the August concussion that's ruled him out for at least this year, but it's worth remembering just how spectacular a career professional football's all-time leading passer has had over his twenty years in the CFL—and how things could have gone very differently. Calvillo's difficult upbringing in the tough L.A. suburb of La Puente and the long-shot path that took him to success at Mount San Antonio Junior College, Utah State and then the CFL's Las Vegas Posse, Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Montreal Alouettes have been well-chronicled, but a lesser-known part of his story is how close he came to joining the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers. Yahoo!'s Les Carpenter explores that in this excellent feature, and Calvillo himself spoke to Yahoo! about it (plus his wife's battle with cancer, his current concussion struggles and more) in the video below:
As Calvillo details in that video, the Steelers brought him in in January 2003 as part of a search for a quarterback to back up Tommy Maddox. It was a good time for Calvillo, as despite being 30, he was just hitting his CFL stride. His 1994 campaign with the Posse and his 1995-1997 stint in Hamilton saw flashes of potential, but inconsistent overall results, and it wasn't until he went to Montreal that he really became the dominant quarterback we've so often seen in the CFL. He began his Alouettes' tenure learning under established starter Tracy Ham, but took over the main job in 2000 and went on to several great seasons. 2002 marked a particularly impressive year for Calvillo, as he threw for 5,013 yards, his best showing ever to that point, with 27 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He also led the famed 2002 Alouettes to the Grey Cup. NFL organizations started to take notice, and the Steelers were very interested. Here's the key part of Calvillo's comments in that video about the tryout:
"When I get there, there's like no other players around, it's just me. It's the entire coaching staff of the Pittsburgh Steelers and there's like three cameras around me, and they put me through an hour of workouts. The big question was Charlie Batch, was Charlie Batch going to come back as the backup? If he left, then they would bring me in for the backup job. After that workout, about a few days later, they informed me that Charlie had resigned with them and that they were going to go with him as their quarterback, and that closed that window with the Pittsburgh Steelers."
As Carpenter writes, an injury Calvillo suffered late in the 2002 CFL season also played a role in things not working out for him in Pittsburgh:
When Calvillo arrived, the entire Steelers coaching staff was waiting. Three cameras had been placed on the field to film him. An hour of dills was planned. But there was a problem. Calvillo's right ankle ached. He had sprained it during the Alouettes' title run, twisting it inward. He played the championship game on an ice-covered field in Edmonton with his leg heavily taped. And weeks later, at what should have been the biggest moment of his life, the ankle had not healed.
He tried hard to do the things the Steelers asked, but his ankle wouldn't let him. He couldn't plant his foot to throw. He couldn't backpedal. He couldn't run. With each wobbly throw, his one chance at the NFL slipped farther away.
A few days later, Pittsburgh signed its old backup, Charlie Batch. Maddox never turned out to be the answer, and the following year the Steelers drafted a quarterback from Miami (Ohio) University named Ben Roethlisberger, who lived Anthony Calvillo's NFL dream instead.
"That was his chance," Popp says. "Who knows? If he could have gotten there maybe he would have won all those Super Bowls."
Some may write that off as biased talk from a long-time CFL executive, but it's notable that current NFL coach Marc Trestman, who left the Alouettes to take over the Chicago Bears this offseason, also sees Calvillo as a guy who could have shone in the NFL. Trestman's a quarterback guru who's produced spectacular NFL seasons from the likes of Scott Mitchell, Jake Plummer and Rich Gannon, and he spent five seasons with Calvillo as his quarterback (winning two Grey Cups and going to a third in the process), so he knows whereof he speaks on both counts here. Here's what he told Carpenter:
Trestman, who coached Calvillo the last five years in Montreal, thinks he would have been Drew Brees if put in the right NFL offense.
"You look at him and you say, 'How can he play in the NFL, he's got a long motion and he's not the right size,' but I think in an offense like the one Joe Montana ran he would have been a great, great NFL quarterback," Trestman says.
It's fascinating to consider how things would have changed if Calvillo had wound up in the NFL in 2003 and managed to stick south of the border. The Alouettes might not have been the East Division's dominant franchise for most of the next decade, and Trestman might never have come to Canada (and thus never received a shot to be a NFL head coach). Jim Popp might not still be running the show in Montreal; if the team hadn't been able to replace Calvillo at quarterback, his job could have been on the line. The pro football passing record might still be held by Damon Allen. Of course, just getting on a NFL roster doesn't mean you'll stay there long; Calvillo's fellow CFL star pivot Ricky Ray made the New York Jets that same year and hung around with them through 2004, but never got much of a shot to play there, and he eventually came back to Canada before the 2005 season. Still, it's an intriguing alternate history to consider. As Calvillo said in that video, though, the Steelers' decision didn't bring him down. In fact, it helped reinvigorate him to succeed north of the border.
"At that time, I was really excited for the new phase of my life, to really become an established, consistent quarterback here in Canada."
He's certainly done that. If this concussion does mark the end for Calvillo (as he hints it might in both of these pieces), it's been an amazing career for him, and one of the best CFL careers ever. If he does somehow come back, though, there may be further pages still to be written. Either way, he's wound up as a football legend. Despite that NFL tryout not going the way he'd hoped, things certainly worked out pretty well for Calvillo in the end.