- Free Agency
Timing is everything.
On Tuesday January 21, 2014 it was time for one of the greatest quarterbacks in Canadian Football League history to call it a career.
Anthony Calvillo played 20 seasons in the CFL, 16 of those were spent in Montreal where No. 13 made his legacy.
Calvillo led the Alouettes to three Grey Cup titles, including their first in 25 years in 2002, and set league records for career passing yards (79,816) and career passing touchdowns (455) during his time in La Bell Province.
|More on Calvillo’s retirement
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AC, as he more affectionately known, developed into one of the best ever to take a snap in CFL history in Montreal, but it was in Hamilton where he cut his teeth.
Dispersal Draft Brings Calvillo to Steel City
In 1994 Calvillo began his CFL career with the Las Vegas Posse, a US expansion team. On September 24 that season, Calvillo and his Posse beat Hamilton 25-21. Patrolling the Ticats’ sidelines that day was head coach and general manager Don Sutherin.
“He was outstanding when we went out to Vegas to play. He threw the ball all over the park. I said boy I’ll tell you what, I’d like to get my hands on that guy.”
Las Vegas played to a 5-13 record and disbanded after just one season. So the CFL held a Dispersal Draft in April of 1995. The Tiger-Cats held the first overall selection.
Despite Calvillo’s less than stellar statistics; a 44.3 completion percentage, 13 touchdowns and15 interceptions, he flashed some of the abilities required to succeed in the CFL. Neil Lumsden, who would become Hamilton’s general manager in 1997, was on the business side of the franchise in 1995.
“I remember the conversations about what he possessed: a quick release, really good feet in the pocket and he’s got lots of upside.” Lumsden explained. “The Vegas year he threw a lot of balls, had more interceptions than touchdowns, but you could see he could throw the football, he had a presence and he had that nice ability within the pocket to move around.”
“I was really impressed with Anthony,” Sutherin recalled. “So we decided that when he came up in the draft that we would take him right away, which we did.”
And like that the timing was right for Calvillo to become a Ticat.
Playing Days in Hamilton
It wasn’t the easiest of situations to come into with Hamilton. The team had just gone through a tough in 1994. Entering just his second season in the CFL, Calvillo still had lots learn.
“It’s not as if this guy came out of a bunch of training camps, bounced around, had lots of snaps and reps and kind of got it – he was a puppy,” Lumsden said.
Despite working with three different offensive coordinators in three years in Hamilton, Lumsden believed Calvillo was never put into the correct scheme to fit his talents.
“We didn’t have the right stuff around him from a system and players perspective to allow him to even start showing the signs of what he ultimately ended up being.”
During three seasons in Black and Gold, Calvillo started 26 games, producing a 57.2 completion percentage, 7,579 yards, 44 touchdowns and 45 interceptions. Sutherin got to see, up close and personal as his coach, what Calvillo was like.
“Number one, his work ethic was tremendous. He was the first guy on the field and the last guy off it. His demeanor – I never saw him get upset with a receiver or have any issues with anger on or off the field,” Sutherin said.
“He had a desire to win – you can’t weigh that – that’s one thing that really impressed me about him, he hated to lose.”
Hamilton made the playoffs two straights years in 1995 and 1996 before going missing the post-season in 1997. Lumsden had let Sutherin go from his head coaching position part way through the 1997 season and more change was imminent.
Transition and Timing
A number of interconnected events led to Calvillo departing Hamilton.
Lumsden had a relationship with Ron Lancaster and knew his time was running out in Edmonton. So it worked out well for Lancaster to make a move to become the head coach of the Tiger-Cats and he was hired in November of 1997. And it just so happened that Danny McManus and Darren Flutie, who had been with Lancaster in Edmonton, and loved him, were set to be free agents soon after the calendar flipped to 1998.
Meanwhile, Calvillo saw the writing on the wall. He wasn’t going to get to play in Hamilton and said to Lumsden he wanted to go somewhere else if McManus was going to be brought in to start at quarterback.
“It was a matter of displacement. A lot of changes had to be made. Change isn’t always good, but change in a strategic manner is. This was very strategic and targeted,” Lumsden said.
“With Danny McManus getting ready to come over, the feeling was Calvillo was expendable. As good as we thought he was going to be, we had a guy who was already a franchise guy in Danny. It becomes that simple. It really comes down to timing. If Ronnie had come earlier and he hadn’t come with Darren and Danny, AC may have had that career, a large part of it, in Hamilton.”
“I have a lot of faith that Ron Lancaster would’ve put together the right system for AC. There was continuity in Hamilton with people and that’s what made us so good when everyone came together because there was a familiarity to it. I think if AC had hung around and the opportunity to get Danny wasn’t there, it wouldn’t have surprised me if Anthony’s career really exploded in Hamilton.”
After McManus was under contract, Lumsden and Lancaster made the decision to let Calvillo go.
“It was a mutual thing that we’re not going to re-sign you and we’re not cutting you we’re releasing you,” Lumsden explained. “It was that kind of a scenario.”
Calvillo landed in Montreal where he went on to become one of the best quarterbacks to ever set foot on a Canadian-sized football field.
“In this situation everyone that had a chance to put there hands on AC, scout him, recommended him or handed his number to somebody to connect – all of them will tell you they knew he was going to be all world. About 30 per cent of them really did and the other 70 are jumping on the bandwagon,” Lumsden said.
“Could it have been different? Sure. Would it have been better? I don’t know,” Lumsden said. “Here’s what I know: we won a Grey Cup and went to two. It worked out okay for AC, too.”
Looking back, the decision to go with McManus – an established CFL quarterback – over Calvill0 – a young player still learning the Canadian game and experiencing highs and lows – turned out to be the safer and correct determination at the time.
As the years passed, it was ultimately a choice that changed the histories of two franchises forever.