On a football field in the middle of a French-speaking city on the other side of the continent, the greatest passer in the history of professional football blew big puffs of air from bloated cheeks.
“To think that a skinny little Mexican kid from La Puente could be in this position, I could barely hold it all in,” said Anthony Calvillo, his voice cracking.
In a crowded living room in a Downey cul-de-sac, a family cried for him.
“Endure and fight,” said his brother Mario, tears blotting the shoulder of his souvenir jersey. “That’s what the Calvillos do, we endure and fight.”
In the Canadian Football League game on Canadian Thanksgiving Monday, Anthony Calvillo of the Montreal Alouettes became football’s all-time passing leader with 72,429 career yards, breaking the record held by CFL great Damon Allen, cementing his name atop a list whose leaders include former NFL greats Brett Favre and Dan Marino.
On a big couch in a Downey cul-de-sac, two dozen folks from East L.A. don’t care if you’ve never heard of him.
“It’s this phenomenal story, and nobody has a clue,” said childhood friend Donald Lyons. “But those close to him know about it, and we’ve all grown from it, and that’s enough.”
Endure and fight. This is actually not one story, but two, the tale of Anthony Calvillo spanning 39 years and two worlds, somehow landing him on that Montreal field where he broke the record with a 50-yard touchdown pass to Jamel Richardson on the last play of the third quarter against the Toronto Argonauts.
He received a prolonged standing ovation from folks who speak a language that is still foreign to him. He received video congratulations from former NFL greats even though he has never been invited to an NFL training camp.
Back home, family members gathered in a cousin’s home to watch the game off an Internet feed from a laptop computer. They wore his fancy red Alouettes jersey but ate his native food of chilaquiles and burritos and sweetbreads.
“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.
Many can’t believe it now. His mother, Tina, called a local TV station for three years in an attempt to have his story told, yet nobody there had any idea who she was talking about.
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 as a child was calm on the outside, but burning below. Burning at a father who was rarely involved in his life, burning at a brother who was always in trouble.
“I don’t think any of us realized the gift he had,” Lyons said. “Dreams? Pro football? Never.”
Calvillo was so sure he had no future in football he played tuba in the school band and worked at a swap meet on weekends. His restlessness made him a prime candidate for one of the local gangs, except his older brother David had beaten him to it.
It was David who protected Anthony and younger brother Mario by standing between him and gang members and ordering them away. It was David who was later sent to prison for eight years. Today, Anthony cherishes the letters they exchanged during that time, and considers his brother an inspiration.
“Anthony and Mario had to pass through our park to get to their sports fields, and I made sure they never stopped,” David recalled. “I told them, ‘This is not going to be your life, keep going, keep going.’ ”
When Calvillo graduated from La Puente High, his grades weren’t good enough for a college scholarship, so he went to Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut. From there, he signed up with Utah State, where he was initially fifth-string.
“I just knew that because of my size, I had no chance,” said Calvillo, who started for Utah State for two seasons. “Even the pro scouts who came to campus, they never asked me to work out, and I was fine with it.”
Enter the Canadian Football League, a 53-year-old venture that features an 110-yard field, 12 players on each side and rules that encourage passing and a fast pace. It was the perfect place for a small but accurate quarterback. When the CFL expanded to Las Vegas, it was the perfect place for Calvillo, with only one problem.
“I had never even heard of the CFL,” he said.
No matter, he showed up in Las Vegas for tryouts with 13 other quarterbacks. They lived in a casino hotel and practiced on grass laid across a casino parking lot.
Said Calvillo: “It was insane.”
Said Lyons: “It was clearly the end of his football career.”
Who would have thought that it was only the beginning? Who could have imagined that he would earn a starting job in Las Vegas, then go on to Montreal, leading the Alouettes to three titles in eight league championship game appearances over 11 years?
His coach, former NFL assistant Marc Trestman, compares him to the New Orleans Saints’ Drew Brees, and says he could start for 15 teams in the NFL.
Calvillo thought he would have an NFL shot. Warren Moon, Joe Theismann and Jeff Garcia were all star NFL quarterbacks who began their careers in the CFL. But his only serious tryout, with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the spring of 2003, came after he had suffered a badly sprained ankle, and he hasn’t heard from an NFL team since.
Today, while star NFL quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning make $18 million annually, Calvillo makes less than $500,000.
Endure and fight. He came home from that Steelers tryout and immediately proposed to Alexia, sending the message that he was never looking back.
“He had no remorse about the NFL, none,” she recalled. “He was like, this is where I’m meant to be, where I’m meant to play, I’ll take what I’ve got and make the best of this.”
Even that didn’t go as planned. In the fall of 2007, a week after Alexia gave birth to their second child, she was diagnosed with B-cell lymphoma. She was facing chemotherapy and radiation, and Calvillo was facing a decision that was no decision at all.
At the height of his career, at the climax of his team’s season, he walked away to take care of his wife and two children.
Can you imagine an NFL star quarterback leaving his team in December for a family matter? Can you imagine almost any athlete doing that?
“He’s quite the human being,” said Jim Popp, Montreal’s general manager. “He’s never done anything the easy way.”
His wife’s cancer went into remission in time for Calvillo to return for the following season. Yet two years later, in August 2010, doctors discovered a nodule on Calvillo’s thyroid gland and recommended surgery.
Calvillo kept the nodule a secret from the media, postponed the surgery until the end of the year with his doctor’s approval, and played nearly suffocating from the weight of his ordeal.
Only after Montreal won the Grey Cup -- the CFL’s Super Bowl -- did he reveal his health problem. It was diagnosed as cancer and his thyroid gland was removed. Today he has a scar on the bottom of his neck, but he never missed a game.
“We’ve been through so much,” Alexia said. “It’s like our life has passed as he has passed, tough times, good times, and today he’s still passing.”
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.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
The top five quarterbacks in passing yardage in professional history:
QB League Yards
Anthony Calvillo CFL 72,429
Damon Allen CFL 72,381
Brett Favre NFL 71,838
Warren Moon CFL-NFL 70,553
Dan Marino NFL 61,361