On Thanksgiving Day, Montreal Alouettes quarterback Anthony Calvillo became professional football’s all-time passing yards leader. In his 18th CFL season, Calvillo has thrown for 72,770 yards and counting. A three-time Grey Cup champion and Most Outstanding Player award winner, Calvillo is already one of the greatest quarterbacks in CFL history and will be a first-ballot Canadian Football Hall of Famer.
And it may have started in a Las Vegas casino parking lot.
Calvillo is the only active player in the league to have played during the most bizarre era in CFL history. In 1993, then CFL Commissioner Larry Smith decided the best way to add revenue to a financially troubled league was through expansion; all of the CFL teams, except Winnipeg, voted for expansion into the U.S.. That same year, the Sacramento Gold Miners became the first American CFL team. A year later, the Shreveport Pirates, Baltimore CFL Colts (later Stallions), and the Las Vegas Posse entered the league. In 1995, the Gold Miners relocated to San Antonio to become the Texans, and two more teams were added: the Memphis Mad Dogs and the Birmingham Barracudas.
As a rookie, Calvillo won the starting QB job for the Posse in 1994, and the team finished the season with a 5-13 record — but not before the Posse became the embarrassment of the CFL.
The players had to practise on a field made of sand and grass in a casino parking lot. In their first ever game, the anthem singer sang “O Canada” to the tune of “O Christmas Tree.” The field was not CFL regulation size and game temperatures sometimes exceeded 40C. In the entertainment capital of the world, there was no room for pro football; a home game against the Bombers drew only 2,350 fans, the lowest recorded attendance in CFL history. As a result, the Posse’s last home game was moved to Edmonton — the team folded soon after.
The American experiment was a failure. All of the American teams folded, except for 1995 Grey Cup-winning Baltimore, who moved to Montreal to become the Alouettes. This nearly bankrupted the CFL, who recived a loan from the NFL in 1997. Calvillo later spent three uneventful seasons in Hamilton before going to Montreal in 1998. As large a failure it was, the expansion’s sole redemption can be the star players it gave to the league.
With an additional six franchises comes over 300 more roster spots, and at least one of the players filling those spots must be of CFL star calibre. Mike Pringle, Calvillo’s former teammate, is the CFL’s all-time rushing yards leader. His breakout season came in 1994 with the Baltimore Stallions. Defensive end Joe Montford began his career with Shreveport and has a career total of 135 sacks, mostly with Hamilton. His Pirates teammate, Uzooma Okeke, became a seven-time CFL all-star at offensive lineman. Joe Horn, a rookie receiver with Memphis, went to four Pro Bowls as a New Orleans Saint. Pringle and Montford are now in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.
While fans would like to forget this botched foray south of the border, it is hard to imagine what Canadian football would be like without the impact these players made. The Alouettes are the CFL team of the 2000s, and Calvillo, Pringle and Okeke are the reasons why. Would any other CFL team have given Montford his first chance? Without the Pirates, would Joe Horn’s infamous cellphone TD celebration have happened? Without expansion, would these players still have been given chances in pro football?
Decades from now, as fans think back to debate the legacy of the CFL’s U.S. expansion debacle, some may be quick to dismiss the era as the lowest point in league history. However, through the darkness emerged some of the brightest stars this sport has ever seen. The legacies of greatness created by Calvillo, Pringle and others will forever be the silver lining for an otherwise disappointing era in Canadian football.