Football Thursday: Anthony Calvillo, Greatest QB You Have Never Seen, didn't need Steelers to validate career

MONTREAL – The Greatest Quarterback You Have Never Seen had one shot at the NFL. Then an ankle took it away.

This was in January of 2003 and the Pittsburgh Steelers needed help. They were done with Kordell Stewart as their quarterback and they were moving forward with Tommy Maddox. But they wanted a second quarterback, someone who could challenge Maddox. And they were sure that player was Anthony Calvillo.

Back then Calvillo was just becoming The Greatest Quarterback You Have Never Seen. He was 30 and had spent most of nine seasons drifting through the Canadian Football League before leading the Montreal Alouettes to the 2002 Grey Cup title. Still the Steelers believed. They called Montreal's general manager, Jim Popp, and said they were signing Calvillo. Then they flew him to Pittsburgh for a workout.

When Calvillo arrived, the entire Steelers coaching staff was waiting. Three cameras had been placed on the field to film him. An hour of drills 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.

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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."

Montreal receiver Brandon London, who played in the NFL, says Calvillo is: "one of the five best quarterbacks ever in any league."

Chicago Bears coach Marc 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.

But the Greatest Quarterback You Have Never Seen doesn't think much about his one chance at the NFL. His 79,816 yards are the most in the history of professional football, more than Brett Favre, Warren Moon or Peyton Manning, yet he does not wonder what he could have done in the United States.

He is 40 and sitting in an otherwise empty Alouettes locker room. The last time he played was Aug. 17 when a player from the Saskatchewan Roughriders knocked him to the ground and left him with a concussion. Ever since, he has felt a pressure inside his head that builds and wanes. He hoped for a time to play in the team's last game on Nov. 1 but the pressure came back and he has all but accepted the fact that the tackle in Saskatchewan will be the last of his career. And this is fine.

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"These last 20 years of playing professional football have been amazing," he says in a smooth and even voice. "And if that was the last play, it's the last play and I won't lose any sleep over it."

Calvillo is not an imposing man. The Alouettes list him at 6-foot-2, 195 pounds, but he seems smaller. Slimmer. He has a long moustache that makes him look younger than his age, his eyes are both gentle and intense. Teammates say he is not a leader who yells or screams but one they dare not cross because he demands respect.

He has lived things most of his teammates can't speak of. "Adversity is a part of my life since I was growing up," he says. He survived his father's violence, watched his brother go to prison, heard the doubts of thousands who said he would never play college or professional football, nearly watched his wife die and be told he had cancer.

"He has overcome a lot," his mother, Christina, says.

To become a star in Canada and an unknown in the United States.

"He's a guy who has not gotten enough attention south of the border," Trestman says from his office at the Bears' practice facility. "People don't know how great a player this guy was and what a great person he is too."

Trestman stops and takes a breath.

"I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for Anthony Calvillo," he says.

Calivillo grew up in East Los Angeles and then in the nearby suburb of La Puente with his mother, two brothers and a father who wasn't around much. Home was violent until his parents divorced and his father moved away. Christina worked to make sure they had food and a house. She was gone all day, which meant his older brother David became the adult despite being only a year older than Anthony. David watched Anthony and his younger brother Mario. It was David who took him to the park. It was David who pushed them into sports.

This was hard for David. Being a second parent meant giving up his sports dreams. He fell into a gang while at the same time shielding his brothers from his life. As Anthony got better at football, David went to prison for eight years for attempted murder.

But nothing was simple for Anthony. His only college choice after high school was Mt. San Antonio, a junior college in Riverside County (Calif.). When he finished there he went to the only school that seemed interested, Utah State, where the new offensive coordinator was Jim Zorn, the former star quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks who would someday coach the Washington Redskins.

Zorn taught Anthony to play quarterback, but more important, he became the father Anthony didn't have. On the field, Calvillo went from being the team's No. 5 quarterback to throwing for more than 5,600 yards in two years. But when his time there was done he figured he was through with football.

"I knew the NFL wasn't looking for a 6-foot-2, 180-pound quarterback," Calvillo says.

He thought he might go home and teach and become a volunteer coach at the local park, when the CFL's team in Las Vegas called. He had never even heard of the CFL but he won a 13-man tryout to become the starter. A year later when the Las Vegas team folded he went to Hamilton, where he spent three seasons bouncing between starter and backup.

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"I really wasn't ready to be mentored," Calvillo says. "In my mind I thought if I could beat these guys out I had nothing to learn. I struggled and wasn't very consistent because I was hard-headed. I wasn't lifting, I wasn't doing anything to stay on the field."

Hamilton released Anthony in 1997 after the team lost every game he started. That's when Montreal called. Popp had always loved Calvillo's potential – his strong arm and quick release – and he suspected he would thrive on a good team.

But the Alouettes had one of the league's top quarterbacks, Tracy Ham, in those days. Ham was at the end of his career but still good enough to play. Calvillo sat more than he played in 1999, learning and slowly building support in the locker room until he took over as the starter in 2000, throwing for 4,277 yards with 27 touchdowns and just five interceptions. Two years later, the Alouettes won the Grey Cup and the Pittsburgh Steelers called.

Anthony went to Pittsburgh that day with a secret. Tucked deep in his bag was a ring for his girlfriend, Alexia Kontolemos, a dark-haired woman with a quick laugh who was introduced to him by a friend. He flew back to Montreal in the afternoon, his NFL chance disappeared. Alexia picked him up at the airport and took him to her aunt's house for a family party. When they arrived, he pulled her into an empty bedroom, took out the ring and asked her to marry him.

"To be honest, my mind really wasn't on the Steelers that day," he says. "I was so anxious to ask her. I couldn't wait. I wanted to get it over with."

Any hope of playing in the NFL was gone, but he didn't care. The lost shot at the Steelers didn't leave him empty. He had a city that was his, where people knew him, where he was a star, where the Alouettes gave him a long-term contract and a wife who liked to joke about her "big Greek family" and his "big Mexican family." Montreal was home.



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For the next five years Calvillo became The Greatest Quarterback You Have Never Seen. Three times he threw for more than 5,000 yards. The Alouettes went to the Grey Cup final three more times, losing each one. Records fell. He married Alexia and in 2005 they had a daughter, Athena. Two years later they had a second girl, Olivia, who was born in a room at the Royal Victoria Hospital that literally looked into the Alouettes' Molson Stadium.

Everything was perfect until they came home with Olivia and Alexia had trouble breathing. She couldn't walk without gasping. Going up the stairs was impossible. A team doctor listened to her chest and thought her breathing sounded "compressed." He suggested Alexia should be examined by a specialist.

Alexia Calvillo remembers everything about Oct. 22, 2007. She remembers the sun, the cloudless sky, the temperature about 60. She remembers parking in the same place they did for Alouettes games. She remembers walking past the stadium. She remembers the slow hike up Mount Royal, toward the Royal Victoria Hospital, stopping every few feet to catch her breath.

She remembers the look on the doctors' faces as they told her she had a mass in her chest and the mass was cancer. She remembers the moment they told her the test had come back saying it was large B-cell lymphoma. She remembers her first question: "Is it curable?"

"It is treatable," they said.

"But is it curable?" she persisted.

"It is treatable," they replied.

In a fog, Anthony called Alouettes offensive coordinator Scott Milanovich and said he was leaving the team: "I can't do this," he said. Three games remained in the season, Montreal was in a playoff fight, and the best player in the league had a gravely ill wife, a 2-year-old and a newborn at home. He had no time for football.

In the back of his mind, he thought he might be done with football forever. But strangely, that didn't matter. He had a new task. Everywhere Alexia looked, there was death. Someone she knew had a friend who had the same cancer. The friend died. She met other lymphoma patients at the hospital, upbeat people, happy people who talked of surviving only to die weeks later. The doctors kept talking in percentages. How she hated those percentages. What good are percentages if you don't know if you're going to live or die?

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The first rounds of chemotherapy didn't work. The doctors gave her a stronger dose. Her hair fell out. She wore a wig. At night she lay awake wondering how long she had. She wanted to live long enough to walk Athena to her first day of kindergarten. But the doctors' percentages couldn't tell her if that would happen.

Anthony called a meeting with her family, telling everyone they needed to be positive around her, to help her get well. But as he watched her fighting for her life, still tending to the children, smiling, laughing, he realized something else.

"I said, 'We are going to let her build strength off of us,'" he says "But in fact it was the opposite. We were going to be building strength off of her."

In the spring of 2008, Alexia got better. The mass disappeared. She started radiation. Her hair began to grow back. The worst was over and Anthony went back to football.

Something had changed in Anthony. Walking away from the Alouettes the previous fall made him realize how little the game meant. For years, his ability to fling an oblong brown ball had been his escape. Football was safe. Football was comfort. Football protected him right until the moment the doctor's scan found a mass in Alexia's chest. Then suddenly football wasn't important.

"Family became his coping mechanism," says his friend Scott Suter, a former Alouettes therapist who now manages Anthony's training and well-being. "When things didn't go well on the field he had his family as his coping mechanism. It took the pressure off on the football field."

Trestman was the Alouettes' new coach and the soothing words of the man who had mentored so many great quarterbacks in the NFL gave Calvillo a new understanding of a game he thought he knew well. He became The Greatest Quarterback You Have Never Seen again.

"That's when the second part of my career took off," Anthony says.

The Alouettes started winning. Calvillo was more accurate than he had ever been. Alexia was cancer-free. Montreal won the 2009 Grey Cup. Then Anthony cracked a rib in the middle of the next season. The doctor examining him found a nodule on his neck. The doctor took the nodule to be examined, and as he did he casually mentioned "cancer" and Anthony froze. Not again. This couldn't be happening.

The biopsy came back inconclusive which only made things worse. But the doctor said the cancer – if there was any – would be confined to the thyroid. He said it was not life-threatening. At the end of the season, he said, he would remove half the thyroid to see. If it was cancer they would take the other half out. He would have to take a radiation pill for several days and another pill that replicated the thyroid's function for the rest of his life.

Anthony told nobody about the thyroid other than Trestman, Popp and Alexia and a small handful of friends. This was his problem, he didn't want others knowing. Then Montreal won the Grey Cup and he walked into a victorious news conference and started to cry. "After that, it all just came out," he says. He told the gathered reporters about the rib, the doctor, the nodule, the thyroid, his dread of the word "cancer" and the fear he had played his last game.

A few days later, the doctors cut into his thyroid and found cancer.

Anthony went home. He told Alexia and they cried for an hour. Then they promised it was the last sadness they would feel. Too much good was happening in their lives. The next year, healthy again, he broke the all-time passing yardage record, held by Damon Allen, the brother of NFL Hall of Famer Marcus Allen and once more he was The Greatest Quarterback You Have Never Seen.

A couple of years ago, a car parts company asked Calvillo to talk to its Canadian employees. The idea scared him, but it was also exciting. There was so much he wanted to say: about adversity, about fighting, about dreams, about family and place. He asked Alexia and her brother-in-law, a Mac genius, to design a keynote presentation. It took days, but he wanted it to be right.

Then he stood before the company and told the story of his life. He talked about his brother. He talked about beating out 13 men to be the Las Vegas quarterback. He talked about Hamilton, Montreal and the Grey Cups he missed. Then he talked about the mass on Alexia's chest. He talked about learning how insignificant football is. Then he talked about the nodule on his neck. And when he was done talking to the car parts company, everybody stood and the applause thundered all around.

And so he signed up to do more speeches.

"I get great response from these people," he says. "One, they are impressed I'm able to overcome the things I'm able to overcome and two, that I've been able to put together this presentation. They say they get a lot of presentations from people coming in but they say mine is better than a lot of the others they have been able to see."

He smiles.

"The fact I'm able to share this intimate story with them it kind of brings me down to earth. I'm just another person like them," he says.

But there is a story he doesn't tell the companies. It's a story that makes him cry for a moment as he sits in the empty locker room. It's about something he did that first home game in 2008 after Alexia's cancer. Just before the game was about to start, he looked into the stands where Alexia was sitting with their children in her customary seat, seven rows behind the Montreal bench, and he waved. She waved back.

Behind him, peeking over the west stands of Molson Stadium, rose the gothic green turrets of Royal Victoria Hospital. She could see the window where she first held Olivia, and the floor where the doctors told her about the mass in her chest and where she spent those nights wondering when she would die. It was as if their world was aligned in one beautiful line.

"This is where she won her battle," he says. "That relaxed me."

"He was back and I was well," Alexia says. "It summed up the moment and where our lives were."

Then Anthony turned to the field and the ball snapped into his hands. Pittsburgh was hundreds of miles away and it didn't matter. The Greatest Quarterback You Have Never Seen was in the only place he ever wanted to be.

Arizona Cardinals – John Abraham forced two fumbles.

  Atlanta Falcons – Harry Douglas and his 149 receiving yards.

  Baltimore Ravens – Terrell Suggs is helping to hold this season together.

  Buffalo Bills – Mario Williams starting to show why he's worth the money.

  Carolina Panthers – Finally a Cam Newton kind of day: 204 passing, 26 rushing.

  Chicago Bears – Josh McCown played well in a tough situation.

  Cincinnati Bengals – Sometimes Andy Dalton gets lost on the list of good young quarterbacks.

  Cleveland Browns – T.J. Ward had nine solo tackles.

  Dallas Cowboys – When the Cowboys need Dez Bryant to be great, often he is.

  Denver Broncos – Eric Decker was big against an aggressive Indy defense.

  Detroit Lions – Calvin Johnson earns this spot on the strength of one catch over three Bengals.

  Green Bay Packers – Aaron Rodgers had an Aaron Rodgers day.

  Houston Texans – Given the circumstances this was as good as Case Keenum could be.

  Indianapolis Colts – After stealing Peyton's homecoming, could it be anyone but Andrew Luck?

  Jacksonville Jaguars – Mike Brown had 120 receiving yards.

  Kansas City Chiefs – Tamba Hall had a dominating day for a dominating defense.

  Miami Dolphins – Safety Reshad Jones had nine solo tackles and a sack in disappointing defeat.

  Minnesota Vikings – Erin Henderson's 12 solo tackles stood out on another bad night for Vikings.

  New England Patriots – Rob Gronkowski is just what the Patriots need now.

  New Orleans Saints – Bye.

New York Giants – Eli Manning didn't have a great numerical day but it was effective.

New York Jets – Chris Ivory can hide a lot of the Jets' offensive issues.

Oakland Raiders – Bye.

Philadelphia Eagles – DeMeco Ryans kept Philly in a game where the offense disappeared.

Pittsburgh Steelers – Lawrence Timmons leads a solid defensive effort.

St. Louis Rams – Sam Bradford's last game of year was one of his better ones.

San Diego Chargers – Ryan Mathews ran all over the Jags.

San Francisco 49ers – A very effective day for Colin Kaepernick.

Seattle Seahawks – Another big day for Marshawn Lynch.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Vincent Jackson's 138 receiving yards are lost in another loss.

Tennessee Titans – Jake Locker had a big day against a good Niners defense.

Washington Redskins – This might not have been RG3's prettiest game but it was his best this year.