October 10, 2011
North American football history was made Thanksgiving Monday when Montreal Alouettes' quarterback Anthony Calvillo broke Damon Allen's pro football record of 72,381 career passing yards in a game against the Toronto Argonauts, as had been widely expected, but it was just another legendary moment in a career full of them. The record came on a 50-plus bomb to Jamel Richardson for a touchdown, and that was truly appropriate; Richardson, the CFL receiving leader this year, has been one of Calvillo's most important targets over the last few years. It was a throw Calvillo's made many times before, but it was perfectly executed, hitting Richardson in space and springing him for a massive gain and a crucial touchdown that gave Montreal a 29-19 lead, which would be the final score. It was just another legendary moment in a career full of them, but this is one that will live on in CFL history for years to come and one that can be embraced by Canadians coast-to-coast.
No one expected this day would come when a short quarterback out of unheralded Utah State was one of nine pivots the Las Vegas Posse brought to their inaugural training camp in 1994. Sure, Calvillo had led the Aggies to their first bowl win (which remains the only bowl win in the school's 113-year football history), but he was well off the radar of professional football. Calvillo impressed coach Ron Meyer and played in 17 games that year, but didn't do particularly well; he only completed 44.3 per cent of his passes for 2,582 yards and threw 15 interceptions against 13 touchdowns. His rise to success took a while, too, as a reasonably unsuccessful three-year stint in Hamilton followed the demise of the Posse after one season.
Things changed for Calvillo when he came to Montreal in 1998, though. Serving as the backup to Hall-of-Famer Tracy Ham at first, Calvillo improved quickly and delivered his first incredible season in 1999, where he completed 66.7 per cent of his passes and threw for 2,592 yards. From then on, accuracy became his hallmark, Calvillo would only complete under 60 per cent of his passes in one year, 2002 (where he and Don Matthews led a legendary Alouettes team to the Grey Cup anyway). Calvillo started setting the league on fire through most of the 2000s, but his best years were yet to come after Montreal head coach Marc Trestman arrived in 2008. Calvillo thrived in Trestman's offence and put up some of his best numbers, carving up defences at will and leading the Alouettes to back-to-back Grey Cups in 2009 and 2010. He's still performing at an incredible level and could continue to dominate the CFL for years to come if he wants to.
What's been so remarkable about Calvillo's dominance over the last decade is that he makes the exceptional look truly routine. Most 39-year-old quarterbacks would be at the end of their career, taking a victory lap, but that's not Calvillo; he's having the best season of any quarterback in the CFL, and entered Monday's game first in passing yards (3,963) with a 63.3 per cent completion mark and a CFL-best 28:4 touchdown/interception ratio. His Alouettes were deserving preseason favourites to go for their third-straight Grey Cup victory, largely thanks to Calvillo's return from a cancer scare, and despite ups and downs this year, they're still in great form to get there. Another year dominating the CFL passing statistics? That's ho-hum for Calvillo.
This accomplishment is truly special, though, and it's getting recognition from around North America. Grantland's Michael Weinreb wrote an excellent piece Sunday on Calvillo, the CFL and what his record would mean, and it's a must-read. Calvillo also got pre-taped video congratulations from some big names south of the border in his record-marking ceremony, including Dan Marino and Chris Berman. Despite those congratulations, this will still just be a quirky moment for many Americans who follow football, though. For Canadians, it's our quirky moment.
It's appropriate that Calvillo did this on Canadian Thanksgiving, too, another day that's sometimes noticed but not really recognized in the U.S. Calvillo may be the one setting the record, but the CFL and its fans should be giving thanks for him today; he's been a pleasure to watch, a class act on and off the field, a man who's done great things for charity and persevered through incredible odds, and someone who's become a Canadian legend despite his passport. It says a lot about the league and the man that a Los Angeles-born quarterback of Hispanic descent who played college football in Utah, started his pro career with a CFL team in Las Vegas and wound up becoming a star in Montreal is a true Canadian hero.