After 17 Years, Calvillo Still A Winner

Anthony Calvillo’s name is synonymous with winning. From leading Utah State to a Big West conference title in 1993 to directing the Montreal Alouettes to three Grey Cup championships, the La Puente, Calif., native has never met a challenge he couldn’t conquer.On Saturday night, Calvillo was honored for those achievements and more by Utah State University during halftime of the men’s basketball game, where a crowd of more than 10,000 loyal fans saluted one of the Canadian Football League’s greatest players as the Aggies defeated Fresno State, 71-55. Calvillo was presented with an Alumni Merit Citation in honor of his lengthy career and the volunteer efforts by he and his wife, Alexia, in their community.For Calvillo, it was the culmination of an impromptu weekend trip to Utah State, in which the record-setting quarterback toured the Athletic Department’s new facilities and spoke to students about his experience in meeting life’s challenges head on. And after playing through the 2010 season and recently fending off Thyroid cancer, Calvillo was quick to demonstrate that winning isn’t always confined to the field. “It’s been very natural for me to be able to come and speak about how I’ve been able to play for so many years and the mental battle that goes on,” Calvillo said of talking with current USU students, including members of the football team. “I went in and talked about the ups and downs of my life, on and off the field.”The 38-year old quarterback, fresh off of winning a second-straight CFL Grey Cup, was all smiles during his trip to Logan, and relished the chance to speak with a USU sports psychology class on Friday.”It was fun, and it gives me the opportunity to share my story with kids,” he added.That story could read like a Hollywood script. Offered scholarships by only Utah State and Southern Illinois out of Mt. San Antonio Junior College in 1992, the 6-foot-1 Calvillo took a chance on the Logan, Utah community despite having never been outside his native California. But if he thought his transition into offensive coordinator Jim Zorn’s offense was going to be easy, he was wrong. Recalling his first memories from Utah State, Calvillo likes to tell the story of his first day in the team’s offseason conditioning program. With a scholarship that wouldn’t become active until the beginning of the term, Calvillo signed up to work at a local meat processing factory to earn his summer keep. He soon discovered that making it at the college level was going to involve more than just showing up and looking good. “They had me working at this meat factory for like eight hours a day,” Calvillo recalled. “I’d get picked up at like six o’clock, and work from about seven to four on my feet cutting fat off of meat.”I remember the first workout I had,” he continued. “There was a warm-up period I did before we lifted weights. I was done after that. I went in the weight room to start lifting weights and I threw up in the weight room.” “I’ll never forget that,” Calvillo said, laughing.Not that he was laughing at the time. The routine ended up being too tough for Calvillo to take, and eventually he went back to La Puente to reconsider his decision. He came back to Logan for school, but wasn’t even slated to see playing time when the Aggies opened up against Arizona. That was how it started in Logan for Calvillo, but it was far from how it finished. After a successful 1992 season he ended up leading the team to a landmark 1993 campaign in which he directed the Aggies to a thrilling 58-56 win over rival Brigham Young. The game still lives in the hearts of many in Cache Valley, and holds a special place in Calvillo’s memory. “That game is always going to stand out in my mind,” he said. “To win that game in that fashion, 58-56, and to have the fans storm the field and the goalposts come down, that got us going for the rest of the season.”Calvillo’s career at USU didn’t last long, but it taught him a lot about life and opened his eyes to new possibilities. Among other things, he credits his time in Logan with helping him establish the confidence he would need to dominate the Canadian Football League over the next 17 years. “When I came out here I was like ‘there’s a whole other culture out here, a whole other lifestyle,’” Calvillo said. “It really opened up my mind for thinking bigger, not just thinking about being here at home, there’s something else out there.”That something was waiting in Montreal. After stops in Las Vegas and Hamilton, Calvillo signed with the Alouettes in 1998. Success struck first in 2002 when he led his team to a Grey Cup title and earned All-Star honors. Yet even though he would direct a dominating Alouettes run over the next several season, the organization acquired an almost Buffalo Bills stigma for not being able to pull it out in the championship game. Calvillo admits the stigma bothered him, and that the mental pressure to keep performing and meet his own high expectations was a challenge.”That was a mental battle for me, because we had great regular season games and had been great in the playoffs, but once we got into the championship games there was always that little doubt that kind of stepped into my mind,” he said. That mental challenge would be tried off the field in 2007 when his wife, Alexia, was diagnosed with cancer. And while he would ultimately watch Alexia survive her battle with a life threatening form of lymphoma, his inability to break through on the field was wearing on him. Entering his late 30s, time seemed to be running out.Then 2009 came, and with it, all the hard work Calvillo had invested in the game he’s devoted his life to. Winning the Grey Cup once again, Calvillo was nevertheless hit with another bombshell that offseason – the discovery of cancer is his thyroid. Calvillo played through the cancer, which he points out was non life-threatening during the season, but admits that as the year came to a close, he started wondering what the next step in his career would be. Nevertheless, after winning the Grey Cup for a second consecutive year and undergoing a surgical procedure shortly after, the quarterback is healthy and ready to hit the field again. “I’m doing great. The plan is to come back and play for another year, maybe two, and we’ll take it from there,” he said.Before he gets to involved in training though, he’s content to remind himself what it is that drives him to keep playing. “I really still enjoy the game,” Calvillo said. “Even though I’m 38 years old, I still feel like a young kid. I’m still good at it, and the team still has the confidence that I can get the job done. I have nothing else to do right now and I really enjoy the game.”Dr. Richard Gordin, who has been at Utah State for 30 years and invited Calvillo to speak to his sports psychology class, said Calvillo’s visit was a “pleasure,” and that Calvillo’s discussion on overcoming adversity struck a chord with the USU students.”When he started talking about overcoming difficulties in his life, that both he and his wife have had, that’s when my class got silent,” Gordin said. “A pin could drop in there. A lot of what Anthony taught my class was that life is full of adversity.”Gordin teaches several student-athletes, and said Calvillo’s message was especially pertinent to them. “He told them that you don’t give up, that you have to prepare. The thing he said was ‘preparation.’ I love that. He said preparation is the key.”Preparation may be key, but in his discussion with members of the Utah State football team Friday afternoon, Calvillo had a different message. Finally returning to the University that provided him with the opportunities to reach athletic achievement, he stressed the importance of savoring the college experience and enjoying every moment of life – both on and off the field. “It was fun to remind them – and I’m sure at their age right now they’re enjoying the moment – but how fast things go by,” Calvillo said. “They have a chance to play football. That’s what I try to share with the guys – to enjoy it, because it does go by pretty fast.” -USU-

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