To celebrate the 100th Grey Cup, TSN presents ‘Engraved on a Nation,’ a series of documentaries highlighting eight indelible moments in the history of the CFL’s ultimate prize. TSN.ca producer Shane McNeil presents a feature story on how each of these stories was brought to the screen.
Originally published on TSN.ca – October 18, 2012.
Forget what you think you know about Anthony Calvillo.
Professional football’s all-time passing yards leader has led a very public life and has enjoyed a long career in the Canadian Football League.
However, his road to CFL dominance did not begin when he signed with the Montreal Alouettes in 1998, nor did it begin with the league’s short-lived experiment in Las Vegas in ’95. It did not even start in the early ’90s, when Calvillo went from a community college quarterback to a standout at Utah State University.
It started in a rough Los Angeles suburb called La Puente, a place rife with memories for the 40-year-old Alouettes pivot. Genie Award-nominated filmmaker Shelley Saywell brought Calvillo back home for her contribution to TSN’s Engraved on a Nation documentary series: The Kid from La Puente.
“For Anthony, going back to La Puente was emotional from the get-go,” said Saywell. “I was not just going back to La Puente with him and meeting his family but also his coaches and neighbours as well who all had a stake in this little kid who fought from nothing to make it to the CFL.”
Life in La Puente was not easy for Calvillo. The child of a Mexican immigrant family, life at home was rocked by an alcoholic, abusive father, while his life outside the house was under constant threat from gang violence.
The latter threat was absorbed by his older brother, David, who plunged into the gang scene to keep his younger brothers out. He would be repaid with a 16-year jail sentence for attempted murder while Anthony was still in high school.
“Anthony was surrounded by violence, both inside and outside the home,” said Saywell. “He had to bury that, keep it together and find his escape through football. That little boy – who saw a lot and couldn’t do much about it – had to find a way to channel his emotions and find a way out.”
This struggle – profiled in depth in Saywell’s film – has laid the foundation for Calvillo’s success in the CFL and makes his emergence as one of the greatest quarterbacks in the league’s history all the more remarkable.
“The CFL gave him a chance for a new life but he fought through huge obstacles to get there,” Anthony’s brother, Mario Calvillo said in ‘The Kid from La Puente.’
Mario serves as the narrator of the documentary, a decision Saywell was convinced to take after a rough-cut version of the film featured no narration. Not wanting to use a generic ‘voice-of-God’-style narration, Mario – whom Saywell describes as “the family philosopher” – made perfect sense after making a sound first impression.
He relates the mixed emotions in his brother’s return to La Puente as football’s all-time leading passer in the film:
“Anthony’s journey back is more than a celebration,” Mario said in the film. “It’s about confronting what happened here.”
The journey back, according to Saywell, changed her perception of one of the league’s most-watched players.
“No matter what people knew about Anthony before,” said Saywell, “they won’t know all about his childhood and the ways in which that experience has made him into the man he is today – and the husband and the player he is today.”
Saywell experienced that transformation herself going over game film after shooting for the film had wrapped.
“I was in tears watching a lot of those triumphs because I knew what it took for him to get there and I think now, that if you watch his story and then watch him on the field it just feels different,” she said.
Calvillo’s story is about perseverance. He not only overcame the odds stacked against him in a troubled childhood to become a CFL success, but then triumphed over tragedy again in Montreal.
He has twice played through cancer; first with his wife Alexia’s diagnosis in 2007, then his own diagnosed in the summer of 2010 and revealed to the press after the 98th Grey Cup.
Still, he would take the hit, get up and keep playing.
That message, and Calvillo’s example of tenacious perseverance is one that resonates with all Canadians, not just fans of the Als or the CFL.
“We all get knocked down,” said Saywell. “Anthony’s story is it’s about getting up, dusting yourself off and going back at it and doing that over, and over, and over again.”
For Calvillo – who has already etched his name in Grey Cup lore by starting more games than any quarterback in CFL history with eight – one could be left wondering how much more he has to play for.
But Saywell learned the hard way that the kid from La Puente still has a lot left in the tank.
“The only time Anthony ever got his back up with me throughout this process was when I mentioned the word ‘retirement,'” said Saywell.
“He just said: ‘I’m not ready. Don’t talk about it.'”