Anthony Calvillo a winner beyond the gridiron | Football | CBC Sports

CFLAnthony Calvillo a winner beyond the gridiron

Posted: Tuesday, January 21, 2014 | 11:00 AM

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Anthony Calvillo has thrown for more yards than anyone in the history of professional football. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press) Anthony Calvillo has thrown for more yards than anyone in the history of professional football. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

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Asked what I might miss in Anthony Calvillo as he retires from the CFL, the answer was easy. That he was always there, always a part of the CFL life, always consistent, always a winner, but never bigger than the game itself.

The freeze of a post-Grey Cup Edmonton evening back in 2010 found the assembled media throng filing out of the temporary interview room at field level just as a surprise guest was striding in.

Anthony Calvillo, who an hour previously had led his Montreal Alouettes to a second straight championship by beating the Saskatchewan Roughriders, was coming through the door, led by the club's media director.

"AC has something to say," we were told.

Did he ever. There was a very good chance he had cancer of the thyroid (an operation a week later would confirm this), and no one had known about it outside of a few close friends and his family.

Those emotional moments were the first that popped to mind when the Larks announced last week that AC would have something else to say.

The news is that the most proficient passer in pro football history is officially retiring as a result of age (41) and a concussion suffered on Aug. 17 of the just-completed season.

His stats tell one story -- 79,816 regular-season passing yards, producing 455 touchdowns over 20 years. Practically every passing mark in the book. Three Grey Cup wins. Three times voted the league's Most Outstanding Player.

But it's what that presser in Edmonton revealed of the man that said so much about what the CFL is losing as a player, and his family and adopted city of Montreal is gaining -- a healthy man with many years ahead who strives to live an ethical, classy life as best as a human being can.

Quiet dignity

Anthony Calvillo's cancer, a condition discovered only because the medicos had been doing extensive tests on a badly bruised sternum suffered a few months previously, was kept quiet.

There was no emotional press conference at the time, as some athletes might have done in this "my brand is more important than my team" era.

So there were also no endless "poor Anthony, look at him battle," columns and blogs. No stirring music to super-slo-motion shots of AC taking hits and getting back up. No smacking his heart and pointing to the sky, certain that money shot would get on the cover of a magazine.

No endless distraction.

Instead, it was football. Win the Cup and then we'll talk about it.

Once he let the word out, emotions came.

"I think, to be honest with you, I think we all played it down pretty much," he said of his illness, glancing once or twice over at his wife, Alexia, while fighting back tears.

Those stolen glances were meaningful because she herself had beaten non-Hodgkin's lymphoma three years before, a battle her husband joined by going on a leave of absence with two games to go in the 2007 season to look after the family.

Athletes don't take leaves of absence.

While she recovered, Calvillo, then 35, set out to re-invent himself by changing his eating and work-out habits and accepting the suggestion of new coach Marc Trestman that, despite having done so much already, he could still be so much more.

Survivor

From 2008 to 2012, the quarterback had his best years, winning the CFL top player award twice, going over 5,000 yards passing three times, tossing 164 touchdowns, winning two championships.

Better, those middle three seasons (2009-2011) produced 90 TDs and an astonishingly low 21 picks.

As part of the 100th Grey Cup celebrations in 2012, Calvillo's tough upbringing in East Los Angeles was laid bare by filmmaker Shelley Saywell in a documentary called The Kid from La Puente.

Queried on how he made it through his childhood, Calvillo said "It's what you know, and you can't do anything about it."

That he survived is not unique in football, however -- most dressing rooms in the sport can offer a half-dozen stories like that. It's how football is.

Truly impressive is how he was able to retain such a strong and loving family, avoid repeating the mistakes of others, and come out with a deep belief in what defines a man in modern society.

Asked what I might miss in Anthony Calvillo, the answer was easy. That he was always there, always a part of the CFL life, always consistent, always a winner, but never bigger than the game itself.

AC is staying in the CFL as an Alouettes ambassador, but admits coaching is something he definitely wants to do (offensive coordinator, it says here). In Montreal. Where he belongs.

It's what he knows. And he may have done something about it.

Follow Malcolm Kelly on Twitter @sportsnag

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