As Ricky Ray drops back in the pocket at practice and looks down field for an open receiver, Anthony Calvillo stands right behind him, knowing every footstep the Toronto Argonauts quarterback will take and every rapid-fire decision Ray will make in the next few seconds.
There are few people who know exactly what the 38-year-old veteran quarterback is feeling, seeing and hoping to accomplish on every play the way Calvillo does. He and Ray are considered two of the greatest CFL quarterbacks ever, share a profound expertise for the offence of coach Marc Trestman and know the intricacies of playing dominant football deep into the twilight of a long career.
Believe it or not, Ray and Calvillo hardly knew one another over the years they repeatedly met in Grey Cups, vied for Most Outstanding Player Awards and showed up at the same league events.
But this year, the two greats are joining forces.
Calvillo, who retired in 2014 as the CFL’s all-time passing leader, along with three Grey Cup titles and three Most Outstanding Player Awards, is now wearing the colours of a team other than the Montreal Alouettes for the first time since 1997. At 45, he joins the staff of his old coach Trestman as the Argos’ quarterbacks coach, trying to help Ray win his fifth Grey Cup as the new season kicks off this week.
Ray’s 2017 campaign was his best passing season in nine years and the second-best of his 16-year career. He threw for 5,546 yards and took the Argos to a stunning Grey Cup victory over the highly favoured Calgary Stampeders. For two months after that snowy triumph in Ottawa, he contemplated retirement. He decided he’s still able – and having way too much fun to quit.
Calvillo had planned to take this year off after three seasons as an assistant in Montreal and 16 seasons there as a player. But then the coach with whom he won a pair of Grey Cups came calling, down a body on his staff after Marcus Brady left for the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts. The chance to work with both Trestman and Ray was too tempting to pass up.
“I was really looking forward to seeing how Ricky prepares and how he conducts himself in practice and around the guys, and it’s been exciting for me,” Calvillo says. “You remember a lot of great competitors, and he was at the top of the list. We competed for many years in the regular season and Grey Cups. I have so much respect for him, and now that I’m able to spend more time with him, I’m getting a new appreciation for him.”
He rolls up one sleeve of his navy Argos shirt and consults the quarterback wristband he’s wearing, one just like Ray’s, full of tiny printed plays. Trestman has added new wrinkles to the offence since “AC” ran it in Montreal.
“And they’re big plays for us,” Calvillo says, “so I wish we’d had them back in the day.”
He makes efficient use of the short periods in practice when his quarterbacks aren’t lined up with the offence running plays. From his own career, he knows what else a pivot needs to feel comfortable come game day.
Between those periods, he has Ray and the other quarterbacks busy. They sometimes run sprints across the width of the end zone to build conditioning so they can simulate what it’s like to run plays while fatigued. They zip passes into mesh targets or practise footwork while Calvillo lurches toward them waving his arms in their faces. He ensures they practise those little-used hot throws they may need late in a close game, wanting them to become second nature.
“Anthony thinks ahead and considers the things we as quarterback are not getting during the week in practice and he’s very detail-oriented,” Ray says. “As quarterbacks, we’re actually not running very much in practice. We’re just taking our drops. He said, ‘Late in a game, you may need to scramble and you’re going to be tired, so you have to make a good decision.’ That comes directly from his experience.”
Ray’s Edmonton Eskimos got the best of Calvillo’s Alouettes in two of the three Grey Cups in which they squared off. Ray remembers what used to go through his mind when he watched film of Calvillo.
“I remember at the time watching him and thinking, ’Man, I hope I can do what he’s doing when I’m in my late 30s,” Ray says.
Studying the innovative ways that older athletes train and extend their careers is of great interest to Ray. He has implemented ideas he’s learned about Tom Brady’s training philosophies. Rather than lift heavy weights often, like he did earlier in his career, he does much of his strength work with elastic exercise bands. The Argos occasionally have a yoga instructor run classes for players, and Ray takes part. He has also begun using a foam roller on his muscles twice a day, then meticulously stretches to achieve – as Brady recommends – long, soft, pliable muscles. Ray even got his own personalized throwing program from Brady’s throwing coach, Tom House.
Calvillo is another source of valuable information on the topic, having played until 40 and survived a brush with thyroid cancer along the way. In his last five years as a player, he cut all gluten, dairy and refined sugar free from his diet. He too relied heavily on bands to strengthen – and preserve – his shoulders. Ray wanted to ask about a special treadmill workout he’d heard Calvillo used to do. The retired QB was happy to share his old conditioning trick.
“It was a great machine called the HiTrainer and it really kicked your butt,” Calvillo says. “I did it for many years, and it helped me get in great shape. It was a three-minute workout in which you sprint for five seconds and then walk for 10 seconds on a non-motorized treadmill. It’s all computerized and shows your peak for each sprint, so you can’t dog it.”
Trestman has enjoyed watching the two quiet leaders work together and provide a rare learning environment for Toronto’s young backup quarterbacks.
“It’s a very engaging, very stimulating experience to be in our quarterbacks room every day,” he says. “Ricky and Anthony are very similar in how they prepare and operate and in their emotional intelligence in the meeting room and on the field. We’ve got two of the best to ever play quarterback in this league. What is evolving is very stimulating.”
No, it’s not your imagination: The CFL season is beginning a week earlier this year.
In an effort to promote player safety, the season will run over 21 weeks instead of 20 to add a third bye week for every team and to reduce the number of short turnarounds between games. The Grey Cup stays put on the last weekend in November.
It’s also a chance for the CFL to capitalize on an extra week of games in warm June weather, and it gives league schedule-makers a little more flexibility to get ideal matchups on the best dates.
“We want to do everything we can to keep our players healthy and on the field, fully rested,” said CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie. “Our fans want to see our players on the field healthy and playing at their best. It’s a fan-centric decision as well.”