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The record-breaking “skinny little Mexican kid from La Puente”

One of the most interesting parts of Anthony Calvillo setting the pro football passing record Monday afternoon was the sheer combination of circumstances that led him to this point. There were plenty of unusual breaks in his college and professional career, but perhaps the most interesting happened even before that. Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke went and talked to Calvillo's family about his background and upbringing, and it makes for a fascinating read (including the quote above from Calvillo himself).

"My family back home was right there with me today," Calvillo said during a phone interview. "They have sacrificed with me. They set this record too."

Endure and fight. The first story is of Calvillo enduring a difficult childhood on the littered streets of Los Angeles, fighting to break free from the mold cast by his gang member brother David, his high school and college years fighting through stereotypes. The second story is how he fought his way into professional football from a casino parking lot, then later battled through bouts with cancer — one of his own, one of his wife, Alexia.

Calvillo is barely 6 feet 1, 200 pounds, Latino features on a face of stone, a guy who more closely resembles an aging baseball reliever than someone who holds the most glamorous record at football's most glamorous position.

"I look a back at my life … it's really hard to believe," Calvillo said this week.

Calvillo's upbringing doesn't read like the stories of most football stars. In high school, he didn't see any future in sports, and played the tuba and worked at local swap meets. His father was rarely around and his older brother David was involved in a gang (and was later sent to prison for eight years), which could have been the younger Calvillo's fate as well if David didn't keep him out. As his childhood friend Donald Lyons told Plaschke, it wasn't exactly an easy way to grow up.

Lyons, his friend, recalled joking with Calvillo, telling him, "Dude, you're poor. Your grades stink. You're just another Mexican kid from [La Puente], why would anyone think you could make it?"

Calvillo (seen above with family and CFL commissioner Mark Cohon during the ceremony to honour his record Monday) found a way to overcome the odds, but it's amazing that he did. His grades weren't good enough for college scholarships, so he went to Mt. San Antonio Junior College in Walnut, California for two years. Coming out of there, he transferred to Utah State University, which played in the obscure Big West Conference and had never won a bowl game. Even there, Calvillo was overlooked thanks to his reasonably small physique; he came in as the fifth-string quarterback. He rose to the top, though, starting his junior season and smashing school records in his senior year (1993), leading the Aggies to their first Big West championship since 1979 and their first bowl win (and their only one to date) in the process, a 42-33 thumping of Ball State in the Las Vegas Bowl. That looked like the end of the line for Calvillo's football career, though, as no NFL scouts were interested in a short quarterback with one year of success at an obscure school.

Enter the CFL, but that wasn't predictable either. Calvillo had never heard of the CFL when he finished at Utah State, and only wound up in the league via a nine-quarterback tryout in Vegas for the short-lived Las Vegas Posse. He overcame the odds to earn their starting job for most of the season, but didn't play all that well and needed more breaks to stick around; he spent the next three years in Hamilton, but never played particularly well for the Tiger-Cats and didn't break out until heading to Montreal as a free agent in 1998 to serve as Tracy Ham's backup. Alouettes' general manager Jim Popp deserves a hell of a lot of credit for that signing, by the way; there was nothing in Calvillo's CFL record at that point that suggested he was going to be a superstar, but Popp took a gamble on him and it paid off.

Even after Calvillo established himself as a starter in Montreal, despite stellar numbers, he got a reputation as a guy who couldn't win the big game. That ended when Marc Trestman came along and revitalized the Alouettes as a whole, but it's not inconceivable Montreal might not have stuck with Calvillo this long if a few things had changed. Calvillo's also managed to persevere despite his wife's battle with cancer (in 2007) and his own battle with thyroid cancer (which he hid for most of the season last year en route to carrying the Alouettes to their second-straight Grey Cup).

Really, if any of the numerous remarkable bends in Calvillo's career had gone slightly differently, he wouldn't have made it this far. He beat the odds and the expectations at every step, though. Perhaps that's what's kept him so humble and so engaging. As Plaschke writes, Calvillo's come a long way, but he's very much still the same man.

Anthony Calvillo has passed for more than 41 miles, yet in some ways he's never moved.

His cellphone still has a "626" area code because he doesn't want friends and family to pay for calling a Canadian number. He is never recognized in the United States by anyone who is not a Canadian tourist, and a Mexico City newspaper recently referred to him as, "The Anonymous Idol."

Endure and fight. After he set the record Monday, instead of going to a fancy restaurant for a celebration party, he joined teammates at a Montreal homeless shelter, where he carved Thanksgiving turkey.

"It's been so crazy today, I can't believe I haven't called the folks back home yet," he said.

No need. Those folks in the Downey cul-de-sac, and anyone else fortunate enough to be touched by that "skinny little Mexican kid from La Puente," they heard you.

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