Leadership is an admirable quality, no matter the uniform. It won’t show up on stat sheets, but you know it when you see it. The case could be made that quality leadership is a must-have for success in any line of work. Leaders close giant deals, change the way we view the world, make key blocks on touchdown drives, and protect loved ones from afar.
If you had to pick a place where leaders are molded and then given to the world, few places would fit the bill better than the United States Military Academy, or, as it’s been known since before the likes of Ulysses S. Grant and General George Patton attended, West Point.
It should come as no surprise that someone as accomplished as NFL lineman Alejandro Villanueva once walked its grounds. Leadership and physical performance helped calculate his class rank. He had tactical training and the opportunity to serve with active army units worldwide before he received his degree.
Alejandro Villanueva graduated West Point in 2010. Agile and strong enough to walk on his hands for 20 yards in high school, Villanueva flourished on the football field for the Black Knights. He tried out for the Cincinnati Bengals, but was cut. He didn’t lose any sleep over it. Service was his first love, and the Army is where he pursued that love for three tours.
In 2014, the Ranger who played tight end, wide receiver, and defensive lineman decided he’d give the NFL one last try. He caught on with the Philadelphia Eagles in training camp.
The Eagles eventually cut him, but not until he’d opened some eyes around the league. He wound up on the Pittsburgh Steelers roster after head coach Mike Tomlin saw a glimpse of the guy a head taller than the other players saluting during the national anthem. He was largely an afterthought until an injury to then-starter Kelvin Beachum gave him an opportunity to prove himself worthy of a starting slot.
Leading a platoon in the army taught him to calculate risk, and to put his best foot forward for everyone on his team. According to offensive line coach Todd Haley — and the depth chart — the lessons stuck. He held the starting spot for the next 12 games, including two against the eventual champion Denver Broncos, in which Steelers signal-caller Ben Roethlisberger threw for a combined 907 yards.
Born in Meridian, Mississippi to native Spanish parents, the still-active duty Villanueva came to the game of football much later than his love for service. In fact, football was once a distant fourth — he didn’t play until his high school years in Belgium, eventually focusing on the gridiron over rugby and swimming.
As for his service, he owes it to his father’s influence. Ignacio Villanueva, who worked with NATO as an officer of the Spanish Navy, was the example that led him to enroll at the military academy and serve in the Army.
By the time college rolled around, Villanueva — known to high school teammates as “giant amigo” — had displayed a love for the game mixed with a healthy dose of athleticism uncommon to men similar in stature. He had the tools to bounce around the field both on the Black Knights’ depth chart and on the field of play, absorbing hits from smaller players. A tight end turned defensive lineman turned offensive tackle later turned wide receiver, he ended his senior year with 34 grabs for 552 yards and five trips to the end zone.
He stood out no matter where he lined up. Soldiers adapt and thrive quickly.
For a select few college players, an NCAA career’s end means selection in the NFL draft. Villanueva had his sights set on an entirely different goal. Instead of priming himself for interviews with scouts and figuring out the correct spelling of Wonderlic, he had bigger plans. When a Bengals tryout didn’t pan out, he was more than happy to pursue the alternative.
And, though the working conditions are better and the planes are first class as a Steeler, if it all came to a halt tomorrow in the NFL, Villanueva wouldn’t lose a wink of sleep. He’d just as readily lace up his boots again as he would his cleats.
Villanueva, described by both coaches and teammates as the consummate professional, eager to bounce back from bad plays and intent on picking scouting tape apart for an on-field edge, seems to play the most chaotic of sports with a unique calm. As impressive as his ability to thrive as a key cog in a high-powered NFL offense may be, his on-field exploits pale in comparison to those of the Army Ranger he once was, and would love to be again.
Villanueva had taken to the example of a devoted military man long before he ever envisioned himself pancaking a defensive lineman. His father dedicated his life to service of both country and family, and for Villanueva, his desire to serve his country would give him an even larger family with which to serve his country.
Lieutenant V won his fellow troops over with his ability to listen and learn. With an all-pro lineman like Maurkice Pouncey around, he’s endeared himself to teammates in the same way.
Excelling at West Point prepared him for his time defending his country. It certainly prepared him for the thrill of victory. Those victories, however, have come in large part through Villanueva’s preparation.
Villanueva looks back at most of his time spent in Afghanistan with a reverent nostalgia. He doesn’t go into great detail on his time in the field, but when he does, what shines through almost immediately is the great love and respect he still holds for his fellow soldiers. Their closeness was no more evident than in the stands when the Steelers played the Kansas City Chiefs in week seven in 2015, when Kansas City Native staff Sgt. Jeremy Simon cheered the former Lieutenant he had once taken under his wing.
Still, it doesn’t take a decorated Army Ranger to know that defending one’s country and defending one’s quarterback are altogether different tasks. The transition has been bumpy. At that same Kansas City game, he gave up two sacks to a five-time Pro Bowler. Some rookies would chalk it up to the learning curve. The soldier in him looked at his fellow linemen and saw a high standard. There would be no settling for number 78. Regardless of what coaches told him about what would come with experience, Villanueva required more of himself.
After three tours for his country and countrymen, Villanueva isn’t quite ready to close the book on his career in camo. At this point, it would only make sense for him to go from Afghanistan to Pittsburgh and back again. He’s displayed the ability to lead, protect, and sacrifice for the good of his teammates at every level. He doesn’t seem conscripted by the allure of a lucrative contract, and he doesn’t play a position that lends itself to glamour. For Villanueva, service and protection seem like what he was meant to do. When the clock runs out in his last game and the terrible towels stop waving, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him go back to the team he loved playing for first.