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Is Anthony Calvillo the greatest quarterback in CFL history?

Montreal Alouettes quarterback Anthony Calvillo looks on as he announces his retirement from CFL football in Montreal, January 21, 2014.


Subjective evaluations inevitably prompt arguments, even when the facts are compelling.

More passing yards (79,816), touchdowns (455) and championship game appearances (eight) than any other quarterback in Canadian pro football history, a career that spans two decades, a fistful of sporting and civic accolades.

The just-retired Anthony Calvillo isn't given to reflecting about such things, and on the day he announced he is walking away from the game he has played professionally for half his life proclaimed "I've never played the game for the stats, or with goals in mind or worrying about a legacy."

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Just because Calvillo isn't preoccupied by the matter won't advance the discussion, never mind settle it.

His election to the Hall of Fame is a formality, but is Calvillo the greatest quarterback the CFL has ever seen?

Several of his former teammates certainly think so, and said as much at the 41-year-old's tearjerker of a retirement announcement.

"I can tell my daughter I played with the best player to ever throw a pigskin," said former all-star defensive end Anwar Stewart, who arrived in Montreal in 2002, the year Calvillo earned the first of his three Grey Cup rings.

Others will put forward the candidacy of, say, Doug Flutie, or Warren Moon, or Damon Allen (or Russ Jackson or Ron Lancaster).

In fact, former Alouette Jock Climie, in a videotaped tribute - which was slightly odd, given he was in the room covering the event live for television - said he'd put Flutie ahead of his old teammate.

It wasn't intended as a slight, Climie wasn't trying to trample on anyone's achievements, it's a defensible argument.

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Flutie played eight dominant years in the CFL, racking up 41,355 yards (he led the league in passing five times) and picking up three Grey Cup MVP awards.

The Boston College product may have been more dominant, but it's hard to argue against Calvillo's consistency – his career passing numbers are easily the best in pro football history, only Peyton Manning has a higher completion percentage among pro quarterbacks with more than 7,000 passing attempts.

Only Manning and Brett Favre have thrown more touchdown passes – Calvillo had about 8,000 more career passing yards then Favre, and 15,000 more than Manning.

If Flutie was the most exciting, all-round quarterback of his generation, and the ageless Allen was his era's most dangerous runner, Calvillo was its deadliest pocket passer – by far.

Flutie threw one interception for every 31 passing attempts in his CFL career, Allen tossed one for every 32; Calvillo, on the other hand, threw only 224 in 9,437 career pass attempts (pro football's all-time high), an astounding ratio of 42 attempts for every interception.

He burst through the 5,000-yard plateau an amazing seven times in his Alouettes' career (Calvillo broke into the CFL with the mercifully defunct Las Vegas Posse and endured three seasons playing on mediocre teams in Hamilton before spending the last 16 years in Montreal).

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Sure, Allen and Flutie were far more dangerous running the ball, but no quarterback – not in the NFL, CFL or USFL – has been as effective with their arm.

"There's only one Anthony Calvillo," said a choked-up Jim Popp, the long-time Als GM and the man who saw potential greatness in the skinny kid from East Los Angeles – he first saw him when the Posse played the Baltimore Stallions, who would later be reborn as the Alouettes.

"It was Aug. 6, 1994, it was about 130 degrees out," said Popp.

Since Calvillo joined the Als in 1997 – he initially backed up Tracy Ham, whom he thanked effusively in his announcement – his achievements have been eye-popping.

Though he is the quarterback of record in five Grey Cup losses, he led the Als to back-to-back championships in 2009-10, at an age where most of his peers are long-retired (in a post-game interview after the 2010 game he revealed he'd been suffering from a cancerous thyroid).

Popp allowed that greatness "is in the eye of the beholder" but that there's no doubt in his mind as to Calvillo's place in CFL history – it's at the very top of the pile.

Offensive lineman Scott Flory, who joined the Als in 2001, said he won't soon forget Calvillo's performance in the second half of the 2009 championship, when the Als played the Saskatchewan Roughriders at Calgary's McMahon Stadium.

"Being down 18 points with eight minutes left in the game or something like that, just having him go up and down the sideline, looking at him and knowing we have the confidence of our leader; to go back, to claw back with two 2-point conversions, and to win the game – that will go down as the mark of a champion and a leader. And then doing it again the next year . . . those are memories I'll carry with me forever," said Flory, who is also a likely retirement candidate.

Alouettes owner Robert Wetenhall suggested that Calvillo's contribution to the squad goes well beyond his on-the-field accomplishments, praising his generosity and decency, saying "he has walked among us with an air of humility."

Team president Mark Weightman related an anecdote about how a team official contacted Calvillo during a bye week a few years ago to see if he'd be willing to autograph a jersey for a child who was laid up in a local hospital.

The official drove the shirt over, at which point Calvillo – whose wife Alexia is a cancer survivor – took it and asked for the hospital room number.

"He said he'd take it from there. And he went and visited with the child and his family for more than an hour," Weightman said. "That is the great Anthony Calvillo."

The latest testament to Calvillo's generosity of spirit and dedication to self-improvement: he is taking correspondence courses to finish the degree at Utah State that he left uncompleted more than two decades ago to pursue a football dream.

The plan is to finish the degree – he'll do an internship in the Alouettes front office to accumulate credits – and take his family to the commencement this summer.

"I think it's important for my girls (daughters Olivia, 8, and Athenia, 6) to see that," he said.

So argue if you must about Calvillo's place in the pro football pantheon, dissect the flaws in his game, lament the missed opportunities at winning more championships.

But consider the stats, then look at the man, and the discussion becomes moot.

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