How Alejandro Villanueva Went from NATO Military Brat to Starting in the NFL

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Alejandro Villanueva with the Pittsburgh Steelers walks on the field in 2015. (U.S. Army)

Baltimore Ravens starting offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva is ready to start his seventh season in the NFL. His journey from a military base in Mississippi to two-time Pro Bowler took a lot of effort and persistence, but Villanueva does the work.

Villanueva was born at Naval Air Station Meridian in Meridian, Mississippi, on Sept. 22, 1988. His father, Ignacio, was an officer in the Spanish navy and was stationed there while working for NATO. Ignacio Villanueva’s service took his family to Rhode Island, Belgium and back to Spain. Along the way, young Alejandro learned to play rugby with the children of other NATO officers.

He attended high school in Belgium at the Defense Department’s SHAPE high school for DoD dependents. It was there he learned to play American football. When he graduated, he put in for an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point.

While playing for the Army Black Knights, Villanueva started or substituted for a number of positions on the field, including left tackle, defensive lineman and wide receiver, but he was recruited as a tight end. If you know anything about football, that’s a pretty wide range of talent and athletic ability.

Alejandro Villanueva plays football for the U.S. Military Academy's Black Knights. (U.S. Army)

Despite his size and athleticism, Army fell to Navy all four years of Villanueva’s time on the Black Knights football team. After being commissioned as a second lieutenant, he entered the 2010 NFL Draft. At the time, the policy for academy athletes allowed them to pursue professional sports before their service commitment ended, as long as they obtained a waiver.

Under President Donald Trump in 2019, the DoD changed the rules for academy athletes. They now can delay their service with the approval of the secretary of defense or repay the U.S. government for their education.

But Villanueva didn’t require a waiver. He went undrafted in 2010, then tried out for the Cincinnati Bengals for a slot at tight end but wasn’t selected. Their loss. Villanueva began his military career that same year. Villanueva became “Lt. V.” to his soldiers. The Afghans in his area of operations referred to him as “the Giant.”

Many of Villanueva’s Ranger missions remain classified.

He served three tours in Afghanistan, but after the end of his first tour, Villanueva tried again to join an NFL team. This time, he worked out with the Chicago Bears. He didn’t make the team in Chicago, either, but that was OK. He was still under his West Point service commitment.

After two more tours in Afghanistan, Villanueva returned to the United States, ready to give the NFL everything he had. He didn’t have a trainer, a coach or an agent. But he had the determination to pursue what he wanted. He put in the work. He paid to attend a regional combine in Georgia to show the NFL what he could do. His investment in time and money (he paid more than $400 to attend the Georgia combine) paid off. He was one of 240 potential players invited to a super regional combine in Detroit.

He was signed by the Philadelphia Eagles in 2014 to play defensive end. If he didn’t make the team, he would have returned to Afghanistan. Although he was cut by the Eagles later that year, the Pittsburgh Steelers saw his potential during a preseason game with the Eagles. When Philadelphia cut him, Pittsburgh snatched him up.

Pittsburgh Steeler Alejandro Villanueva, second player from left, plays football in a game against the Cleveland Browns in 2019. (U.S. Army)

As a member of the Steelers, Villanueva stayed on the practice squad for his first season. He bulked up and learned the position. He made his first NFL appearance in the Steelers’ 2015 opening game against the New England Patriots.

By the end of the 2016 season, Villanueva was the starting left tackle, finished the season as the NFL’s 23rd-best player at the position and helped Pittsburgh reach the playoffs. Like his 6-foot-9, 320-pound frame, his reputation and skill at the game only grew. In 2017, the Steelers signed Villanueva to a four-year contract and became the first service academy graduate selected to the Pro Bowl since Roger Staubach in 1979.

After the Steelers did not re-sign Villanueva in 2021, he was picked up by the team’s rivals, the Ravens, in a two-year, $14 million deal.

Just reaping the rewards of his years of hard work, training and discipline.

-- Blake Stilwell is a Cincinnati Bengals fan and watched Alejandro Villanueva wreck the Bengals at almost every meeting. He can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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