SALT LAKE CITY — The top passer ever to come out of Utah wasn't Alex Smith, Jim McMahon, Steve Young, Robbie Bosco, Scott Mitchell, Bob Gagliano or Eric Hipple. It wasn't even Ty Detmer.
Lightweights, all of 'em.
The answer is former Utah State University quarterback Anthony Calvillo, if you go by raw numbers. The man has passed for 41 miles in his professional career (72,387 yards), more than any quarterback in anybody's league. Previous record holder Damon Allen played for 22 seasons to get that far; Calvillo is in his 18th year.
Where has he been? A little ways north of here, and we're not talking Logan. We're talking Canada. It doesn't matter whose league you're playing, you have to be special to get those numbers. He may not be as good as Dan Marino, Warren Moon or Brett Favre, but he's more prolific. And he is friends with all of them. Each paid video tribute to Calvillo when he set the record in the Montreal Alouettes' Monday win over Toronto. That shot him past Allen, also a CFL alumnus.
Calvillo, a three-time league MVP, has passed for more than 4,000 yards in a season 10 times. He has spent 14 years with the Alouettes, where he led the team to three Grey Cup championships. At age 39, he seems to have moved into reflective, mellow middle age. He said he "never lost any sleep" over media criticism back before he was winning championships. Asked whether he plans to correct anyone who might leave him out of a discussion on the best passers of all time, Calvillo said on Tuesday, "I won't, but I think my wife might. That's never been the M.O. I used."
If you don't follow the CFL — does anyone south of Thunder Bay? — you wouldn't know it's a league with quirky rules. For instance, three downs instead of four, which lends itself to a lot of passing. Plus, 12 players per side and a 110-yard field. At the same time, it's not so terribly gimmicky. Doug Flutie played there from 1990-97. Moon spent six seasons in the Northland. Other CFL alumni include Jeff Garcia and Joe Theismann.
The CFL isn't for everyone. Unlike the U.S., where football is king, you have to deal with hockey, a game no true Canadian would disrespect. You also have major league baseball (Blue Jays) and basketball (Raptors). In other words, you're not the main show.
The league is comprised largely of former American college players who have plenty of experience but not enough size or speed. Strange as some rules are, it's closer to the NFL than Arena Football or the Lingerie Football League and a lot bigger than the United Football league.
The bad part is nobody in the States is watching.
"Whether I'm recognized down South is not the most important thing," Calvillo said, "because all those yards definitely occurred up in Canada."
The good part is that top players can make a nice living in a game they love. Calvillo played at USU in 1992-93, when the Aggies finished tied for second and first in the Big West standings. His 3,148 passing yards in 1993 is the second-most by an Aggie passer since then.
He never did get a shot at the NFL, other than a brief try with the Steelers in 2003. Yet he seems secure in his place. Life is too short to lose sleep over things like perceptions. His wife was diagnosed in 2007 with B-cell lymphoma, so Calvillo left the Alouettes mid-season to care for her and their two children. In a rare move for a pro athlete, he put his career behind his family. After her cancer went into remission, he returned to football. But in 2010 he had his own surgery for thyroid cancer.
That's how it has been for the shadow star from LaPuente, Calif., a series of obstacles and triumphs. He dodged gang life as a youth, in large part due to a brother who did prison time and warned him away. He played in junior college when grades kept him from going to a major school, then moved to USU, one of the few schools that offered him a scholarship. When the CFL held tryouts with the Las Vegas Posse, Calvillo outfought 13 other candidates to make the team. He was on his way.
Nearly two decades later, he's still thriving in a land where ice is the playing surface of choice.
"I'm very proud of my accomplishments in Canada," he said.
Gangs, grades and cancer failed to discourage him. Why should a lack of recognizability?
"I tell all media I'm still writing my story," he said in his confident but humble way. "I'm not done yet."
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