By Joe Starkey
A remarkable man has taken up residence in the Steelers locker room just a few stalls down from Ben Roethlisberger. His name is Alejandro Villanueva, and he will tell you that he is not remarkable at all.
His story says otherwise.
If this were merely a football tale, it would be unusual: A 6-foot-9, 315-pound, one-time Army wide receiver (what?) who hasn't played a down in five years goes from trying out at defensive end in Philadelphia Eagles camp to giving offensive tackle a whirl on the Steelers practice squad.
That's unusual. The remarkable part is Villanueva's military background. His three tours of duty in Afghanistan. His bravery and leadership under fire. His fierce loyalty.
The Army Times recently provided the basic details …
“Villanueva's first deployment came as a rifle platoon leader with the 10th Mountain Division. He was there for a year, earning a Bronze Star with ‘V' for valor after advancing under enemy fire to reach wounded soldiers. … He also holds a Bronze Star Medal for overseas service, a Parachutist Badge, Combat Infantryman's Badge and Expert Infantryman's Badge, along with other honors.”
Ashley Fox's moving ESPN.com piece chronicles the night of Aug. 25, 2011, when Lt. Villanueva's unit responded to a call involving an accused U.S. informant and Taliban militants. After finding nothing at first, Villanueva and his troops were “ambushed by as many as eight Taliban militants in a spray of bullets.”
Three soldiers were wounded. Villanueva, under heavy fire, dragged the three to a nearby school, where they waited for help. One soldier — Army Pvt. 1st Class Jesse Dietrich — did not make it. He died shortly after being lifted onto a helicopter.
Villanueva rejects the notion that he acted heroically.
“Anybody who's served in one of those deployments where you really try to bring it to the enemy can relate to a night where, as a leader, you have to react, and it's not on your terms,” he said after practice Wednesday. “It's what I had to do to fix the situation on the ground. Everybody would have done the same thing. You're obviously not going to back away from that.
“It was a very unfortunate night. That's the only way I would describe it.”
He thinks of Dietrich every day.
“He was a great kid,” Villanueva said. “He had his whole life in front of him. He's got a son who looks exactly like him. It's one of those things where you want to promise (Dietrich) that his son's going to be OK. It's tough because you don't know what to do at times. He seems to be doing really good. I try to stay in touch with the family. And if he ever needs anything, obviously I'll be there for him.”
The ambush was part of Villanueva's harrowing first tour of duty. He became an Army Ranger and served two more, neither of which he is permitted to discuss.
His new teammates know parts of his story. They're awed.
“I can't imagine,” guard David DeCastro said. “Just having a guy like that walk in here, with that background … ”
DeCastro called Villanueva a “humble guy” who wants to fit in. Fellow guard Ramon Foster agreed.
“I saw where he came back (from the Army) in March,” Foster said. “This guy's had a quick turnaround as far as his body, his mindset, his transition to football.”
Indeed, Villanueva, 25, went from studying the Steelers' offensive line in advance of an exhibition game two weeks ago to becoming a member of it. He wore No. 78 at practice Wednesday and found himself on the scout team, blocking first-team defensive starters such as Cameron Heyward.
“He's a specimen,” Foster said. “It's probably going to take some time, but he's definitely willing to work.”
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.”
The football transition is minor compared to the one Villanueva says “every military person fears.” That would be the return to civilian life, particularly after having seen action.
Think about it: This man lived permanently on guard, often in danger, in remote Afghan outposts for months at a time. He faced live fire. He saw at least one person die.
How does anyone in that position find his way back to any semblance of normalcy?
Villanueva said his new bride, Madelyn, has helped ease his transition. But it's still tortuous at times.
“I thought it was going to be a little easier,” he said. “You know (in the Army) you have an entire organization willing to die to support you. So leaving that behind … sometimes you really do miss everybody you've been serving with.”
Villanueva's military commitment is not finished. On Tuesday, he signed up with the Army Reserve. He isn't sure what that will entail. But after his recent travels, plus a fondly recalled childhood that saw him live in Spain, Belgium, Rhode Island and places in between (his father was a Spanish Naval officer who worked for NATO), he's ready to settle down.
“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.”
Remarkable, you might say. Kind of like the mountain of a man who has taken up residence in the Steelers locker room.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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