"He's human, after all," is an expression often heard when the armour of the invincible is pierced or the stoic breaks down.
Anthony Calvillo, through 20 CFL seasons, was frequently invincible and largely stoic in the heat of competition. But underneath the professional exterior he was, and is, compellingly human. Those moments when he has shown that humanity are the ones I remember most vividly.
On January 21, 2014, Calvillo choked up as he announced his retirement from the game which had occupied nearly half of his 41 years. He struggled to find his words while admitting he had never been more nervous in his life. He struggled some more when he thanked his wife, Alexia and daughters, Athena and Olivia. The same held true when he said how much he will miss his teammates, past and present. He was nearly overcome with emotion when he mentioned his late friend, Mike Dawson, who had passed away scant weeks ago. His decades-long association and friendship with general manager and head coach Jim Popp caused the Alouettes executive to break down, almost uncontrollably, once Popp had started to deliver his tribute to Calvillo.
Calvillo's retirement announcement marked the end of his playing career, but during that storied journey, there were glimpses into the soul of the man which remain indelible in my memory.
In late October 2007, Calvillo cried in a media scrum on the practice field outside Olympic Stadium when he revealed that Alexia had been diagnosed with b-cell lymphoma, one week after she gave birth to the couple's second daughter, Olivia. The happy ending, of course, was that Alexia would beat her cancer.
Seconds after winning his third Grey Cup in November 2010, Calvillo cried during a live interview with TSN's Farhan Lalji as he finally unburdened himself of a secret he had kept for three months: a cancerous lesion was growing on his thyroid gland. The lesion was detected after he sustained an injured sternum in a game against the Blue Bombers on August 20. Only his family and closest friends and teammates knew of his illness while he guided his team to and through the Grey Cup. Joy, relief, trepidation. All were on display once the final gun had sounded in Edmonton that night. A surgical procedure to remove the lesion the following month would lead to another happy ending in the Calvillo family's fight against cancer.
My most lasting memory of Calvillo came eight days after he had leapt over Damon Allen to become pro football's all-time leading passer on Thanksgiving Day in 2011; not the moment itself, even though I was the sideline reporter standing only 70 yards from the decisive catch-and-run by Jamel Richardson which vaulted Calvillo to the pinnacle of his profession.
On October 18, Calvillo was invited by the Montreal Canadiens to a game at the Bell Centre so the crowd could acknowledge him for his historic achievement. After the fans in attendance gave him a thunderous standing ovation prior to puckdrop, Calvillo and his family were taken upstairs to watch the game from a luxury box. I was working rinkside for the NHL on TSN broadcast that night, so we secured an in-game interview with him in the suite. It was during that interview that I was privy to Anthony Calvillo -- the family man and the player -- encapsulated in one fleeting moment.
Midway through Calvillo's answer to one of my questions, Athena (who was six-years old at the time) sidled up to her Dad and planted a kiss on his right cheek. Without breaking stride, Calvillo continued and completed his answer. His legendary focus which was unshakeable under pressure from defensive front 7s for two decades shone in that moment, as did the fibre of his family. A child raised in a deeply caring, nurturing family didn't hesitate to show her playfulness, innocence and adoration of her Dad -- regardless of the circumstances. National audience? Were you on TV, Dad?
Waivers. Redemption. Concussions. Championships. Tears. Laughter. Transcendent athlete. Despite the accolades and his place in the history of the game, Calvillo describes himself as a regular guy. At home, he takes out the garbage. He changed his daughters' "poopy diapers" when they were infants.
Anthony Calvillo. He's human, like us all.
John Lu is TSN's Montreal Bureau Reporter and has covered the Alouettes and Anthony Calvillo's career since 2007.