Naylor: Calvillo earned everything he got along the way

Dave Naylor
1/21/2014 2:48:09 PM
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In Canadian football, the potential of the game's greatest players isn't always obvious during the early stages of their careers.
And Anthony Calvillo is no exception.
He came to the CFL in the most unusual of circumstances, the 21-year-old quarterback of a CFL expansion team in Las Vegas that spent its one and only season playing before crowds that resembled friends and family.
That first season, he completed 44 per cent of his passes and threw more interceptions than touchdowns while the team stumbled to a 5-13 record and then folded. Had Calvillo hung up his cleats right then and there, no one would have blamed him. And no one would have remembered him, either.
At that time, he was about as anonymous as a CFL player could be.
All of which makes more remarkable the journey he's taken over the past 20 years, retiring as the all-time leading passer in pro football history, three Grey Cup rings and a legacy in Canadian football that is virtually unmatched.
The lesson of Anthony Calvillo's career is that those who become stars in the Canadian game are rarely those who possess eye-popping physical attributes, or who arrive with bona fide star power.
They are, instead, usually players whose full skill sets aren't obvious right away, requiring a combination of humility, determination, patience and smarts to reach their potential. And in Calvillo's case, he needed every one of those qualities to get him to the top.
Calvillo's time in Las Vegas was followed by a move to Hamilton for three seasons where he served primarily as backup quarterback for the Tiger-Cats, followed by two more with Montreal where he once again played the understudy, this time under CFL great, Tracy Ham.
If there was greatness ahead of him at that time, only Calvillo would have known it.
Yet six years into his professional career, following Ham's retirement after the 1999 season, Calvillo took the reins in Montreal looking like someone who'd been succeeding at the Canadian game all his life.
It turns out Calvillo had made good use of those first half-dozen years in the league, refining his craft, learning from his own mistakes and those of others, quietly turning himself into someone who was ready and able to engineer a CFL offence.
When his time came to become a starter with Montreal, he was meticulous and calm, the consummate professional who could command respect from those around him with his approach to the game and unmatched level of preparedness.
Had his success come earlier in his career, Calvillo might not have lasted as long as he did in the CFL.
But when the National Football League comes looking for players in Canada, it tends to value youth and overhwelming physical skills.
To appreciate Anthony Calvillo, you couldn't just look at tape or watch him at a workout. You had to see him game-in and game-out to understand the consistency, how rarely his instincts betrayed him and what a winner he was.
That recogntion didn't come quickly in Canada either, however.
Consider that when TSN did it's Top 50 all-time players list in 2006, a survey of football media from across the country, Calvillo's name wasn't on it.
It wasn't truly until the final half-dozen years of his career that Calvillo began to receive his due as one of the league's all-time greats, as the success he accumulated year after year became impossible to ignore.
Calvillo is the last player to have played for a U.S. expansion team to retire, closing the book on that desperate chapter of CFL history but at the same time reminding us it wasn't all bad.
If it weren't for the Las Vegas Posse, would Calvillo have ever played in the CFL? And even if he had surfaced elsewhere in the league, would his journey somehow have turned out differently?
It's been a great ride for Anthony Calvillo, the rare CFL player who retires as a nationally recognized name in Canada.
From the unlikeliest of beginnings to the highest of accolades, he earned everything he got along the way.

Dave Naylor can be heard weekdays from 4pm-7pm as the host of TSN Drive on TSN Radio 1050 in Toronto.

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