Alejandro Villanueva, the Army Ranger who served four tours in Afghanistan after playing football at West Point, made his first NFL start yesterday, playing tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Unfortunately, the Steelers fell 23-13 to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Villanueva was protecting QB Landry Jones, who was also making his first NFL start after being called up from the practice squad to fill in for Steelers starter Ben Roethlisberger and backup Michael Vick, both felled by injuries this season.
Villanueva was discovered by Steelers coach Mike Tomlin during the 2014 preseason, when the West Point grad was playing defensive end in a preseason game for the Philadelphia Eagles. Tomlin liked what he saw and signed Villanueva with the idea that he’d convert him to an offensive tackle and the 6-foot-9 player has bulked up from 245 to 32o lbs. Fans of the Army Black Knights shouldn’t be surprised at the transition. While at West Point, he played several positions before ending his career as a wide receiver in 2009.
The 27-year-old has experience that no other NFL player can match or even really comprehend. According to a post from our friends at We Are the Mighty:
Villanueva was serving as a 2nd lieutenant in Afghanistan. Stationed in the Kandahar Province, he was the rifle platoon leader of the 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team. A firefight had broken out between the Taliban and Afghan civilians, and, in trying to protect them, Lt. Villanueva had unknowingly led his troops into an ambush. The Taliban was waiting in the dark for Villanueva, the 6-foot-9 man known as “The Giant,” and opened fire, wounding three soldiers. Two of them survived, but Pfc. Dietrich, 20, bled out through the hole in his back moments after Lt. Villanueva had carried him from the fray and loaded him onto a helicopter.
Villanueva got the job after Kelvin Beachum suffered a season-ending injury. His career as a starter got off to a rough start, however: he gave up two sacks to linebacker Tamba Hali in the fourth quarter, the second causing QB Landry to fumble the ball and give up a turnover. “I let my team down,” Villanueva said. “I’ve got to play better. It’s unacceptable that I get beat twice in the fourth quarter when the game is on the line.”
Things are looking up for Villanueva and the Steelers: Roethlisberger is set to return next week when the Steelers take on the unbeaten Cincinnati Bengals at home and the Army Ranger gets a chance to prove himself in an offense led by a future hall-of-fame quarterback.
Just to show how far he’s come, check out this May 2014 CBS This Morning profile that aired when he signed with the Eagles.