When the late Ron Lancaster was hired to run the Hamilton Tiger-Cats one of his first orders of business was to pick up the phone and call his old teammate, Russ Jackson.
At the time, Jackson was the radio colour commentator on Ticats games, and Lancaster wanted to pick his brain — two of the greatest quarterbacks in CFL history throwing ideas off each other.
“What do you think about Anthony Calvillo?” Lancaster asked Jackson back in 1998. The truth was, at the time, Jackson didn’t think much of him.
“I told him I didn’t think he was going to be successful if he stayed in Hamilton.”
Lancaster asked why.
“He had such a terrible first year in Hamilton,” said Jackson. “He fumbled around a lot. He’d sprint out and drop the ball. I think so much of it was the pressure then. He didn’t seem to be able to handle it. It was like everything got to him. I told Ronnie — I don’t think he’s your guy.” Lancaster thanked Jackson and shortly after that, he released Calvillo, making him available to any CFL team, bringing in Danny McManus to quarterback the Ticats.
On March 3, 1998, in a story that garnered no memorable headlines, the Montreal Alouettes signed quarterback Anthony Calvillo. “And the rest, as they say, is history.”
Jackson was laughing as he said that. The rest is history as in the quarterback the great Jackson told the great Lancaster to rid himself of now ranks alongside both Jackson and Lancaster in CFL lore. On Friday night, when the Argos play the Alouettes, Calvillo will quarterback in his 289th game, passing Lancaster by one in that department. But the big news will come when he throws his first touchdown pass of the night — likely to Jamel Richardson or S.J. Green — and becomes the all-time leading touchdown thrower in the history of our game.
Not bad for a guy who started in the parking lot with the Las Vegas Posse, bombed out in Hamilton, backed up Tracy Ham in Montreal, and now is here, in a place Jackson and Lancaster never knew. He is the single most valuable player in Canadian football and there really is no second choice. When Jackson played there was always Lancaster or Kenny Ploen or somebody you could have a comparison argument about.
Today, there is Calvillo. Alone. If there is a second choice, it’s so far removed from the equation it’s not really part of the conversation. That irony is not lost on Jackson, who was brilliant at another place, another time, but now in a generation where numbers are more easily quantified, Calvillo is working his way to owning all the important ones.
“It goes to show how important experience is,” said Jackson, who played with only one team his entire career. “There was nothing really special about Anthony when you first saw him. And I can’t tell you this would have ever happened to him had he stayed in Hamilton. I don’t know what would have happened if that was the case. I just know at quarterback, he ranks with anyone who has ever played.”
The context of time is important in the career of any professional athlete. Nearing the end of his career, Calvillo’s stature is actually growing within the game. This is his fourth season with Marc Trestman calling the offence and whatever Calvillo was before, the combination of him and Trestman is that much stronger. Is Trestman the reason Calvillo is this great or is Calvillo making Trestman that great? In each of Trestman’s first three seasons, they have made their way to the Grey Cup. And with eight touchdown passes thrown through two weeks of the CFL season, this looks like it could be a fourth straight trip.
“When you watch him, you can see the experience,” said Jackson. “Calvillo almost knows what’s going to happen before the ball snaps. You think of where he’s been and where he’s come from, from that experience in Las Vegas and Hamilton to backing up Tracy Ham, you can see he was able to handle the disappointment. A lot of guys wouldn’t have been able to do that. It’s a credit to Anthony he’s been able to do that.”
About five years ago, TSN put together a list of the 50 Greatest Players in CFL history. Lancaster was ranked seventh on that list, Jackson eighth, although I would have had Jackson higher than eight. Not on the list: Anthony Calvillo.
“He’d be there now,” said Jackson. “He’s in the Top 10, all-time. It doesn’t really matter what number you are, after you get past one and two, the other eight are just about the same.”