Mon Nov 29 12:11am EST
Knowing you have a potentially cancerous lesion must be tough enough. Knowing this when your family's been hard-hit by cancer in the past makes it even tougher. Knowing all that, and somehow putting it out of mind long enough to concentrate on football and lead your team to their second-straight Grey Cup championship? That's absolutely unbelievable for most mortals, but that's what Montreal Alouettes quarterback Anthony Calvillo just did.
Calvillo and the Alouettes delivered a tremendous performance today, beating Saskatchewan for the second-straight year, but in a vastly different style of game. Instead of last year's offensive shootout that ended with a Montreal missed field goal, a crucial Saskatchewan mistake that led to a penalty and let Montreal make the second field goal to win 28-27, this one was a knock-down, drag-out defensive brawl that finished 21-18, appropriately enough after Montreal's defence made one more play. They almost brought down Darian Durant, who tried to throw the ball away and avoid the sack, but wound up getting picked off by Billy Parker. It was an appropriate end to a defensive struggle and an emphatic stamp on the Als' dominance as the first team to win back-to-back Grey Cups since former Alouettes' coach Don Matthews did it with the Toronto Argonauts in 1996-97.
Yet, within minutes of the final whistle, all the jubilant celebrations fell hollow and the football contest itself paled by comparison when Calvillo stepped to the podium for his post-game press conference. Prior to that, the discussion had been mostly about the game, with small digressions to investigate the futures of head coaches Marc Trestman and Ken Miller. Neither revealed much, as expected, so many thought today's stories could solely focus on football.
They were soon proved wrong, though. After an initial question about what this championship meant to him, Calvillo could no longer hold in the secret he'd lived with for most of the season. After suffering an apparent bruised sternum against Winnipeg in August, Calvillo was hospitalized. Doctors examined him and found out he had a lesion in his throat, and one that they weren't able to identify as cancerous or benign. Calvillo missed a couple of games, supposedly with the sternum injury, but then came back and continued his Most Outstanding Player-calibre season without a word to anyone outside the locker room about what he was dealing with. He was the league's most efficient quarterback, completing more of his passes (67.6 per cent) than any other starter, throwing 32 touchdowns against just seven interceptions and finishing with a 108.1 quarterback rating, again higher than any other starter. He led his team to the highest of highs, the Grey Cup, and he somehow did all that while playing under this pressure and not knowing if this was something that would threaten his life or his career. He's compiled one of the greatest CFL quarterbacking careers ever, and is still at the very top of his game. Now, after a week of vacation with his family, he'll have to face an even bigger challenge; going into surgery.
"The biopsy came back inconclusive," he said. "They're going to have to take out half my thyroid."
It must have been particularly hard for Calvillo and his family to deal with this, considering that his wife Alexia Kontolemos learned she had cancer in October 2007, just a week after giving birth to their second daughter. She fought a long battle against B-cell lymphoma, and eventually managed to win. Now, their family was facing their second cancer scare in a few years, and they couldn't tell anyone about it.
Calvillo wanted it reinforced that he was not putting football ahead of his health. He mentioned that he made the decision to finish the season after thorough consultation with a variety of doctors, who said that these types of lesions can often be left for a while in particular cases (such as pregnant women).
"They have a lot of experience in this, and there's no rush," he said.
It's also notable that many others, including reporter Alex Ruiz, have had similar surgeries successfully. It's quite possible this could be quite minor, they could find it's benign, and Calvillo could be ready to return for another year of football if he chooses to do so.
Yet, even if there were no health risks from leaving this alone until the season ended, it's almost unfathomable that Calvillo could continue to focus on the game. Football is such a mental and cerebral sport, especially at the quarterback position, where everything depends on learning plays, reading coverages, making snap decisions and changing your mind in a split second. Doing all that, while knowing that you might have something much bigger to worry about, while knowing your family's perhaps in for another tough battle and while dealing with the pressure of keeping a gigantic secret? Mortals can't do that, but perhaps titans can, and tonight Calvillo demonstrated he belonged in that second class.
"Football gave me an opportunity to not think about it, but now I don't have football."
Finally after the goal had been reached, after he'd claimed his third Grey Cup and his second consecutive one, Atlas revealed the weight he'd been carrying on his shoulders. "Next week or so I'm going to be having surgery on my thyroid to remove a lesion," he said. "We're not sure what it is." He said it almost as matter-of-factly as any of the usual sporting cliches, like "Both teams played hard" or "We gave it 110 per cent." As soon as he said it, though, everything else seemed to diminish. The win, the loss, the entire game; all faded into the rear-view mirror. This Grey Cup is the story of one titan who held up the world for half a season, and somehow still came out on top.