Canada’s Vegas Vacation

The tale of the star player you’ve probably never heard of … unless your definition of “football” extends past the Canadian border.

Hey all, Ernie here with a piece from Andrew Egan, who is in the midst of working out a Canada fixation. He found his way across the border, though, to a story with a potential Super Bowl tie-in. I’ll let him explain …

Today in Tedium: What makes a job an aspiration? Something worth sacrificing to achieve. Fame? Wealth? Influence? Some combination of all three? Millions around the world have dreamed of playing in an NFL playoff game, racing in a Formula One event, or starring in a Hollywood movie. Actually hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, popping the champagne at Monte Carlo, or clutching your Oscar during an acceptance speech requires a unique combination of factors generally out of people’s control. Millions may dream, fewer may try, and even less make it. And in the gaps, we learn what it really takes. Today in Tedium we’re talking about a failed Canadian Football League expansion into the U.S. and the greatest success they picked up along the way. — Andrew @ Tedium

Today’s GIF is of a Toronto Argonauts player doing one of those goofy videos they show during games. Yes, the CFL has them, too.

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88.9

The career average quarterback ranking for Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback turned social rights activist and Nike spokesman. Barrels upon barrels of digital and literal ink have been spilled questioning whether or not Kaepernick was worthy of a roster spot following the 2016-2017 season, citing a decline in production. The NFL would later agree to an out of court settlement with Kaepernick, who had sued the league for colluding to prevent teams from signing him. (If you’re still wondering who was ultimately correct in that debate … it was Kaepernick.)

Colin Kaepernick

Colin Kaepernick, while still a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. The fact he couldn’t get a job reflects the bizarre nature of getting one of the most elite roles in professional sports—starting QB for an NFL team. (Mike Morbeck/Wikimedia Commons)

The HR problem in professional football

American football has a lot of problems, almost too many to really cover here. (See the recent news from Seattle about a backup offensive lineman that brutally assaulted his girlfriend.) Considering the size of the league, however, much of its human resources is fairly standard. The NFL has some 1,300 employees scattered across its various operations, including ad sales, media relations, and community outreach.

Where things start to get wacky is with the on-field talent. Teams are seeking competitive advantages and have historically been myopic in its concentration of production over anything else. The NFL is pretty forgiving of pretty much everything but a lack of a talent … and protests against police brutality, apparently. This scenario has created a marketplace where talent is valued to the extreme. You think the reason for this would be simple, that teams just want to win. The reality is a lot more complicated, especially when it comes to the game’s most important position.

Quarterbacks lead their teams. Even when the offense is off the field, they’re expected to rally teammates, help with their adjustments all while reflecting and adjusting their own play. The position is notoriously difficult to play and elite performers can command upwards of $30 million annually.

One of the biggest difficulties facing NFL teams is the harsh reality is that while there are 32 teams, there are not 32 starting caliber quarterbacks available at any given time. This is an odd element perhaps unique to football. Despite the massive talent pool of people dreaming of playing professional football (and a smaller but still huge pool that is actively pursuing this goal), an infinitesimal number of people are actually capable of leading an NFL offense. For some context, could you imagine the English Premier League if the world suddenly developed a lack of top tier goalkeepers? Double digit results might suddenly become common in the beautiful game.

In the brutal game, elite quarterbacks can torch even elite defenses. One excellent example would be a 2018 game between Kansas City and L.A. Rams. Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes was in the middle of his (presumably first) MVP campaign and Rams QB Jared Goff was coming off a Pro Bowl year in 2017. The end result was 105 combined points in the Rams eventual 3 point win. While giving up 50 points is never a good look in an American football game, and the Chiefs defense was garbage that year, the Rams weren’t really all that bad. They did make it to the Super Bowl that year, after all. New Orleans Saints fans are still salty about that…

Most of this is fairly well known to even casual football fans, which is what made the Colin Kaepernick saga so galling. Plenty of teams had need for his services and he was effectively blacklisted from the league. Considering what football teams have forgiven in the past, it’s pretty accurate to say that Kap got done dirty.

But this is the strange and weird reality of working in aspirational careers. Only so many are chosen and their selection is inconsistently based not just on a mix of talent, ability, connections, and luck. Perception, politics, and, if we’re being honest, race also play a part.

Unfortunately, formal and informal blacklists are nothing new to the gatekeepers of aspirational careers. They’ve long ended the careers of many American writers, actors, and athletes. Derailing a successful aspirational career also doesn’t require anything so insidious as a blacklist. Perhaps the worst thing dreamers can face is disinterest. Just ask Anthony Calvillo. Who? Exactly.

79,816

The number of career passing yards gathered by the second-most prolific passer in the history of professional football. And yet, unless you’re Canadian or a diehard fan of all things football, you’ve likely never heard of him. Let’s change that.

What happens in Las Vegas when a CFL game is playing? A rendition of “O Canada,” of course. They brought in a Vegas lounge singer to sing it. You’re welcome.

Implosions really do create stars

In 1994, the Canadian Football League looked south. Football-hungry Americans have long been a coveted market for the Canadians. Though a storied and rich sports tradition in its own right, the CFL has always been the little brother to its American counterpart. In revenues especially but also with talent.

The problems facing the CFL should be pretty clear. If the NFL can’t field enough starting QBs, what’s the quality in the CFL? And who do you expect to find to field quality players for an American expansion?

Since no one is currently rooting for the Las Vegas Posse or the Sacramento Gold Miners, you can guess how it ends. Despite a glut of willing football players, only so many are actually entertaining to watch. The Canadians learned this the hard way. Of course, that was just one of the many problems they would have coming to America.

Let’s start with the simple fact that Canadian football is played differently. The field are a little bigger and the downs structure is changed. They also play a good chunk of their season in the summer since Canada is cold and they need a lot of space. (Here’s a general explainer on the key differences between the Canadian and American versions of football. And if you don’t know anything about the sport in general, kudos to you for getting this far! That’s some raging curiosity.) Shouldn’t be a problem, right?

Yeah, it was.

CFL Football

(Nazmus Syed/Flickr)

For starters, playing on a bigger field meant that existing American sports stadiums couldn’t easily accommodate Canadian regulation fields. One part of the issue was that, at the time, many American stadiums were dual purpose for football and baseball. Competing with American markets that already had NFL franchises was also a nonstarter. This meant the CFL opened its American expansion in the vibrant cities of Las Vegas, Sacramento, Baltimore and Shreveport. The league also had to modify a requirement that a certain number of players had to be, you know, Canadian. Apparently having too many Americans playing in the CFL is considered cheating?

Baltimore, whose NFL team was famously relocated in the middle of the night to prevent legal action preventing them from doing so, would go on to be the only successful CFL in America franchise, in terms of either attendance or on field performance. The Baltimore Stallions (a nod to the city’s stolen Colts team) ended up getting to the Grey Cup, CFL’s championship, in its inaugural season.

By the 1995 season however, the expansion was already in trouble. The Las Vegas Posse had proven to be almost comically inept, as either a team or a franchise. American players didn’t know Canadian rules, such as there is no fair catch in the CFL. The summer schedule (July through November) might have meant less NFL competition and pleasant weather in Canada. Playing football in Las Vegas summer sounds less appealing than a comped buffet after blowing your vacation budget in the first hour. They did do the creepy-yet-obvious-thing and name their cheerleaders “Showgirls”. (Considering their team name and it was the 90s, that could have been a lot worse.) Their head coach would even use them to distract opposing teams.

Though the Posse would only survive for one season in the CFL, with the entire America experiment failing after three seasons, they managed to find a gem in the rough, a rookie quarterback out of Utah State named Anthony Calvillo.

I’ve always imagined the song “Once in a Lifetime” by the Talking Hits a little differently for some people. If that’s true, Anthony Calvillo is definitely one. His early life is rough. The son of an alcoholic and abusive father, Calvillo grew up just outside Los Angeles, in an area wracked by gang violence. His brother would join a gang and eventually went to prison for attempted murder.

Warned against gang life by his brother and finding little refuge at home, sports became an outlet for Calvillo. But that was it. Though a standout in baseball and football in high school, he never thought about pursuing an education via football. College wasn’t on his radar. A friend would recall to the Los Angeles Times telling Calvillo, “Dude, you’re poor. Your grades stink. You’re just another Mexican kid from [La Puente], why would anyone think you could make it?”

Anthony Calvillo

Anthony Calvillo, shown with his family in 2009. You may not know who he is, but he’s a household name in Canada. (michelgagnon/Flickr)

Calvillo’s grades were definitely part of the problem. He spent two years at a community college getting them in order before transferring to Utah State, where he found himself the 5th string quarterback. By his junior year he had become the starter. He broke out his senior season, setting school records for passing, and led the Utah State Aggies to a victory in the Las Vegas Bowl. Calvillo didn’t have any delusions of attention from NFL scouts, because at 6’1”, he’s small for an NFL QB.

“I just knew that because of my size, I had no chance,” Calvillo told the Times. “Even the pro scouts who came to campus, they never asked me to work out, and I was fine with it.”

And Canada? “I hadn’t even heard of the CFL,” he admitted.

After earning the starting job with Las Vegas, Calvillo impressed enough to sign with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, when the Posse folded following the 1994 season. Then the Montreal Alouettes, one of the CFL’s marquee franchises. The rest would become history. Despite three Grey Cups, numerous records, and a hall of fame career, Calvillo only got one chance at the NFL.

In 2003, after winning his first Grey Cup with the Alouettes, Calvillo got a call from the Pittsburgh Steelers. They needed a backup quarterback. Since backups in the NFL can and often do make more than champion starters in the CFL, he took the tryout.

Unfortunately for Calvillo’s chances, he had injured his right ankle in the Alouettes’ pursuit of a title. The coaches were less than impressed, and that was it.

Calvillo would go on to win more championships and awards. When he broke the all-time passing record, Brett Favre appeared, via video, to congratulate Calvillo on being “the greatest quarterback in CFL history”. Brandom London, a receiver who played with Calvillo and in the NFL, stated more flatly, he’s “one of the five best quarterbacks in any league ever”. Calvillo retired after 20 years in 2013.

In 2020, Drew Brees broke the professional passing record that Calvillo set nine years earlier. Depending on how well the upcoming Super Bowl goes for Tom Brady, there’s a slight chance he passes Calvillo in that game.

Debates over how well Calvillo would have fared in the NFL aren’t typically heated. Canadians genuinely wonder, while Americans dismiss the idea. Canadian football is generally considered more passer-friendly than the American game. The larger field can make receivers harder to cover while giving more room to rack up yards. These are fair points.

But numbers don’t lie. By virtually any metric, Anthony Calvillo was one of the best to ever play the game of (American or Canadian) football.

People who pursue aspirational careers do so with any number of risks. There’s no guarantee of success compounded by the opportunity cost of forgoing training in a more stable field of work. Social and familial pressure to quit can be intense. Who wants to be a never-made-it rock star chasing the dream into their 50s? When should athletes recognize they won’t get a chance to prove themselves? How many rejection letters should a writer get before they take the hint?

What most people don’t tell dreamers is that all-or-nothing isn’t the only outcome. For many, there’s a place somewhere in-between.

It can be the Canadian Football League. Or work as a social activist (and sportswear spokesman with a massive contract).

It can even be something as simple as a little newsletter.

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Thanks again to Andrew for another great piece. Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal!