Character (Ac)Counts: Steelers Offensive Tackle Alejandro Villanueva

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by Rebecca Rollett

Alejandro Villanueva first caught my attention last season when he was mentioned on Antonio Brown’s “What is it?” series of videos. The subject for that week’s video was the NFL’s Salute to Service Day, and Troy Polamalu gave what was a lengthy speech for such a quiet man:

There’s no greater heroes in this country than those who have served in the armed forces. Thank God we’ve had a lot of former Steelers that have served in the armed forces in their tenure as a Steeler and even before.

We currently have one, Alejandro Villanueva. I don’t think any organization really gives as much credit and appreciation [as] we do for members of the armed forces.

The picture above is Villanueva entering the field as an honorary team captain for the Titans game.

But how did he ever make it to the Steelers?

Military Service

After graduating from the U. S Military Academy in 2010, Villanueva made three tours of duty in Afghanistan as an Army Ranger. During his first deployment he received various medals and commendations for his service there, including a Bronze Star with a “V” device for valor, a Nation Defense Service Medal, a NATO medal, and several other decorations.

Last year ESPN writer Ashley Fox gave the details of the incident which earned Villanueva the Bronze Star:

Atop a hill in southern Afghanistan, the 10th Mountain Division of the U.S. Army received a call that someone…[a local informant] had opened fire on a group of approximately 25 Taliban militants meeting inside a mosque in a nearby town…

They found nothing. Surprised, Villanueva called an Afghan elder forward and asked where everyone went. As the elder began to explain, Villanueva and his troops were ambushed by as many as eight Taliban militants in a spray of bullets.

Spc. Martin Piggott was shot in the kneecap. Sgt. Roy Dutton was shot in the back of the leg. Army Pvt. 1st Class Jesse Dietrich was shot near the armpit.

Under heavy fire, Villanueva pulled the wounded Dietrich down an alley and into a second mosque, where a medic took over. Villanueva returned to fight, but when he came back to check on the injured soldiers, the medic told him they needed to move the wounded to a safer location.

Carrying Piggott on his shoulders, Villanueva took the three to a nearby school, where they waited for a helicopter that would transport the wounded to the city of Kandahar…

By the time Villanueva lifted Dietrich onto the helicopter, his eyes were purple. He died a short time later.

“As the platoon leader, I feel responsible for everything my platoon does or fails to do,” Villanueva said. “I failed to keep Jesse Dietrich safe, and you know, it was just tough. … I keep thinking of other ways I would have done it, but it was a very tough mission and the enemy beat us that day. It was just a really bad night.”…  

“Lieutenant V, he was trying not to lose soldiers,” said Spc. Mario Ruiz, who was on the perimeter of the clash and said the platoon was taking fire from all directions. “He was trying to control that situation. I don’t care what kind of training you’ve had, it doesn’t replicate that. It’s not fake bullets. It hits and you’re out.”

One year later Villanueva visited Dietrich’s aunt, AuNeta Southern, who had raised Dietrich. They drove to his grave, and Villanueva was able to tell her about what happened and how he died. As she recounted:

“It was [Villanueva’s] first assignment, the first person he lost. He kicked in a door and used it as a triage place. He had to drag him down that alley by the backpack and shoot over his head. That’s the saddest thing in the world. He has to live with that. 

We are Christian people. When it’s your time, it’s your time. It doesn’t matter. You can have on armor, but when it’s your time, it’s your time. But he has told me that that bothers him.”

The ESPN article also recounts how it is common for West Point grads to assume their training there entitles them to command status. But Villanueva was humble enough to realize he didn’t know everything and needed advice and help. He relied on Jeremy Simon, an older squad leader. Simon was the one he turned to for help in dealing with Dietrich’s death as well:

Dietrich was the first soldier the company lost, and it hit Villanueva hard… Not a day goes by that he doesn’t think about Jesse Dietrich or Aug. 25, 2011.

He’s played the scene over and over in his mind and still can’t come to grips with it.

That night, he sat with Simon discussing the assault. “He would talk about how upset he was and basically trying to figure out what exactly happened,” Simon said.

Almost a month later, Villanueva would have the opportunity to repay Simon’s help and friendship. When Simon took shots in the arm, abdomen and chest during a mission, Villanueva rallied his troops to protect Simon, and they managed to extract him and send him off on a helicopter. Simon eventually ended up in a hospital in Germany, where he almost died several times before pulling through.

Villanueva’s Unlikely Path to the Pittsburgh Steelers

The fact that Villanueva ever ended up playing football seems quite unlikely. His parents are natives of Spain, but Alejandro was born in Mississippi while his father was stationed there. (He served in the Spanish navy.) His unusual height, even for an NFL player (6’9″+) is less surprising when you discover both his parents are six feet tall. (In fact, the Afghan locals called Villanueva “the giant.”) 

It was while he was attending a U.S. Department of Defense high school in Belgium that he was introduced to American football. It took him a while to get the hang of it:

In one of his early games, the opposing team was in victory formation and the referee was late blowing the whistle to end the play. Villanueva had been coached to play through the whistle, so he hammered the quarterback — and was ejected.

He must be one of Mike Tomlin’s favorite players ever, because he is the very definition of the “positional flexibility” Tomlin is so fond of. As a freshman at West Point he played special teams and was a backup defensive end. He was moved the next year to offensive tackle. He was the starter at left tackle his junior season. But in his final year the new head coach decided to move him to wide receiver, where he led the team in receptions (34), with five touchdowns. and he was the offensive team captain.

The offensive line coach, John Tice, said this:

He’s a leader. There are all kinds of leaders in the business world and sports world, but the ultimate leadership has to be leading soldiers in combat. If you can handle that, you can handle anything.

Although Villanueva had worked out for the Cincinnati Bengals after graduating from West Point, and also between deployments for the Bears, his three deployments put his NFL aspirations on hold. (Apparently the second and third deployments are classified, so he can’t talk about them.)

After the final deployment he was stationed at Hunter Army Airfield, near Savannah, Georgia. But despite the fact that a desk job would be the secure way to spend the rest of his career, Villavueva came home determined to try once more to make the NFL. As the ESPN article details:

On nights after work, Villanueva would work out at nearby Savannah State University, and Madelyn [his new wife] would time him running sprints and performing cone drills. He didn’t have a trainer. He didn’t have a coach. He didn’t even have an agent. 

In March, Villanueva paid $245 to attend a regional combine in Flowery Branch, Georgia, and he became one of 240 players — from a pool of more than 3,000 who worked out at 10 regional sites — invited to April’s super regional combine in Detroit, where he met with Eagles representatives.   [In June of 2014] the Eagles asked Villanueva to come to Philadelphia for a private workout. He impressed them enough to earn a contract, albeit with no signing bonus. Nothing guaranteed.

After the Eagles, who planned to put him on the defensive side of the ball, cut him, the Steelers quickly snapped him up. It wasn’t a completely simple transition, as Joe Starkey reported in 2014: 

A perfectionist, Villanueva finds himself frustrated.

“One of my biggest anxiety problems,” he said, “is when I get to something I’m not a master at, I want to get there as soon as possible.”  

He smiled and added, “It’s Day 2, and I feel like I should know all the plays already.”

He obviously got it pretty quickly, though, as he spent the 2014 season on the practice squad as on offensive tackle/guard and the off-season working with former Steelers offensive lineman Tunch Ilkin. So far the arrow is very definitely pointing up for him.

He also spent some off-season time with local kids: 

Steelers’ offensive lineman Alejandro Villanueva got students at Banksville Elementary School fired up on a cold, winter day at a Fuel Up to Play 60 assembly on Wednesday.  

Villanueva, a former U.S. Army Ranger who is still in the Army Reserves, told the kids he was able to attain the goals he set in life by following the lessons his father taught him, and shared those lessons as he encouraged them to work hard to attain their dreams.

“I followed three easy steps my father taught me as a kid and it helped me achieve many things in life,” said Villanueva. “The three things are responsibility, discipline and having fun.”  

Villanueva tied the three in to nutrition, from being responsible for school work and chores at home, to maintaining proper nutrition… He also encouraged them to be disciplined in attaining their goals…

“One of the great things about being an NFL player is being able to talk to younger crowds and deliver a positive message. They just want to learn. For me to give that message out feels great. I was influenced by programs like this as a kid. It is a great reminder for kids that eating healthy and being able to exercise every day is going to help them reach their goals.”

What’s Ahead

Only time will tell whether he will stick with the Steelers. But given how small the chances are that he is here in the first place, I have great hopes.

Villanueva appears to be moving up in the depth chart. He is having a great training camp so far, and was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise rather dreary Hall of Fame game. A young man with his kind of leadership skills, which, unlike the usual use of this term, are literally battle-tested is surely a valuable asset to an organization which values leadership and character. When you add to this his strong work ethic and sufficient humility to ask for help when he needs it, it’s hard to see him not succeeding as a Steeler.

And I’m happy to report he is ready to put down some roots. As Starkey reported:

“I’m married now,” he said. “That’s probably the biggest incentive to settle in a city — and not move her around so much.”

Might that place be Pittsburgh? Villanueva can only hope. He’d never seen the city until three days ago. He loves the hills, the water and the general vibe.

“People always talk about people from the Midwest being so nice as opposed to everybody from the East Coast, and it is noticeable,” he said. “Overall, it’s an awesome city.”

Welcome to Pittsburgh, Alejandro, and may your career here be long and fruitful!

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