Fresh Eyes: Part IV
Rebecca Mehling photo, Steelers.com
by Ivan Cole
Question # 4: Why isn’t Roger Goodell and the NFL smart enough to utilize Alejandro Villanueva to help with its image problems?
When you first heard of it you couldn’t help but smile. I know because that was how Rebecca and Homer first reacted when they heard. ICYMI, early in the first week it was announced that the camp had experienced its first fight. The combatants? Any number of hotheads and bad actors might scroll through your head. Your first guess probably wouldn’t be defensive lineman Cameron Heyward and offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva.
Then the mind goes giddy as it absorbs the concept: The son of Iron Head in single combat with a 6’9” army ranger. Both men are as affable and likeable as you could want, but it is entirely possible that, unlike other encounters of this sort, someone could end up dead. Now admit it. You might not drop a nickel to attend a practice, but you’d pay good money to see that fight. Wouldn’t you love to have a license to promote a rematch? How did it come to this? Villanueva’s explanation after the fact was precious: They had a disagreement over the ending of The Game of Thrones. (Question from Rebecca—how soon can this man be persuaded to run for public office?)
On a much more serious note, the unique quality of the man was on display after the passing of wide receivers coach Darryl Drake as he assumed leadership and spoke for the team.
Of particular note was an exchange with Ed Bouchette during the latter portion of the interview, where the question was raised as to the difference of how death is dealt with in the military context. The safe bet would have been to punt, deflect or perhaps even ridicule the comparison. Check out how Villanueva handled it.
The back story and present circumstances of this man are so compelling that it is mystifying to me how the league can virtually ignore it.
An organization that openly and aggressively allows for an association with the Armed Forces but has very few representatives within its ranks has the good fortune of having one elite combat veteran among its roster of players.
These types of players are going to be rare for a variety of reasons. Actual combat veterans such as Rocky Bleier and Pat Tilman were the exception rather than the rule during the 60s when, presumably to protect their investments, the league stashed military eligible players in the Reserves. Service obligations precluded those from the service academies making a transition to the professional ranks, with a few prominent exceptions such as Roger Staubach and David Robinson.
Villanueva also has an intriguing “rags to elite” trajectory. Originally picked up off of the NFL ‘scrap heap’ as a failed defensive lineman by Mike Tomlin, he is now playing at what most believe to be the second most important position on an offense (or the
entire team), left offensive tackle, and is, further, at the top of the profession as a Pro Bowl player.
His genuinely humble and inoffensive persona is embraced and admired by all within and outside the organization. His admiration and respect for Tomlin is based upon the unique and difficult to assail perspective of leadership; something he is particularly qualified to evaluate.
You think the Spanish surname might help?
Given the current public relations challenges that the league is mired in, one might think that there was someone in New York who might advance the idea that it could be helpful to put this West-Point-graduate-highly-decorated-Army-Ranger-combat-veteran-Pro-Bowl-left-tackle front and center in some prominent but tasteful manner. Say, some sort of Public Service campaign. Just asking here. What am I missing?
If I may be allowed to interject an opinion here, I would be inclined to say that Ivan inadvertently put his finger on the answer with the word “tasteful.” It seems to me that is a quality in short supply at NFL headquarters…
Next: Camp darlings and anti-heroes