Eagles' Villanueva embarks on another mission

Alejandro Villanueva, a 6-9 defensive end, has seen combat action in Afghanistan in four years with the Army.
Alejandro Villanueva, a 6-9 defensive end, has seen combat action in Afghanistan in four years with the Army. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 18, 2014

Alejandro Villanueva has already accomplished and seen more in his 25-plus years than most of us will in a lifetime. The imposing 6-foot-9 rookie defensive end arrived at the NovaCare Complex earlier this month as a long shot to make the Eagles' 2014 roster, but even if he does not land on the opening-day roster, he'll still be the most decorated player invited to training camp.

Sure, running back LeSean McCoy is a two-time all-pro and last year's NFL rushing champion. Sure, cornerback Cary Williams has a Super Bowl ring from his time with the Baltimore Ravens. Neither of them has the Bronze Star Medal for Valor that Villanueva received for his heroics during his first tour of duty in Afghanistan.

"It was just a mission that we had on the 25th of August, 2011," Villanueva said in a tone so matter-of-fact that you might have thought he had received the medal for picking up some coffee at the 7-Eleven. "My unit got ambushed, and I guess the leaders saw the way I reacted to it and thought it showed a lot of bravery.

"It was my unit as a whole that showed a lot of bravery that day. Unfortunately, not everybody made it out of there alive. I sort of take it as my unit earned that reward, as opposed to me."

The 2010 West Point graduate did not describe what he did, but there have been stories about how he rescued some of his fellow soldiers while under enemy fire. He was a rifle platoon leader. He made two more visits, but said he is not authorized to talk about either one.

He did discuss how war altered his life and his opinions about Afghanistan. He also explained why he is ready to leave the Army behind as he makes a second attempt to start a career in the NFL. He tried to make the Cincinnati Bengals as a tight end after graduating from West Point in 2010, but was cut.

Villanueva's football resume is almost as interesting as his military career. He was born at a Naval base in Mississippi, but spent much of his life in Europe, where he focused on swimming and rugby as a kid. It wasn't until he went to a department of defense school in Belgium "when I was 15 or 16" that he started playing football.

With the Black Knights at Army, he played defensive end, left offensive tackle and finished his career as a wide receiver, catching five passes for a game-high 62 yards in his final game against Navy at Lincoln Financial Field.

"When I left West Point, I was very unsure about my abilities because I played three different positions and was never able to build upon one," Villanueva said. "It was heavy in my heart the last time I hung up my cleats. There were a lot of questions in my mind when I came here for a workout. At the end of the day, when they showed interest, it was a very exciting opportunity for me."

Eagles coach Chip Kelly said he initially thought Villanueva would be an offensive lineman, but that changed quickly after the workouts.

"He was just very athletic," Kelly said. "He can actually move and bend and do a lot of different things."

The Eagles obviously liked the character aspect, too. It would be difficult for one of his teammates to turn to Villanueva and complain during training camp when the Army Ranger and captain spent so much time in a war zone the last four years.

Here's what he said his days were like during his first deployment: "We had a COP - a command outpost - it was in the middle of a valley and we were in charge of a large city. If the Taliban conducted an operation inside the city, we conducted operations to kick them out of the city."

That sounds a little more difficult and dangerous than one-on-one linemen drills, even in 95-degree heat.

Villanueva never stopped watching or playing football during his time in Afghanistan.

"We played a lot of football out there," he said in reference to a combat helicopter landing zone that served as the field. "Rocks and gravel almost every day. It was a good time."

He also enjoyed combat because of its impact on the human condition.

"You see the worst of humankind and the best at the same time," Villanueva said. "When you get back from the first deployment, you think every single moment from that day on is a plus. It's like having a pretty bad car accident and everything after that you feel like you can be thankful. But it's also like plus time in your life because everything should have ended that day."

He was referring to Aug. 25, 2011 when he learned a lot about himself.

Because of his immense size, Villanueva must have been an intimidating presence to Afghans in general and the Taliban in particular. He said his opinion of the country evolved.

"The first time I went, I was a very young guy," he said. "As time went along, I matured as a leader. I started realizing the tough problems they have in Afghanistan in terms of the pressure with the Taliban, Pakistan keeping all those insurgents safe. You see how little money they have, the struggles, the 30 years of war. So my last reaction, the last time I left, was it's a beautiful country and I just hope the people of Afghanistan can find peace at some point."

Villanueva, meanwhile, is trying to chase the NFL dream that remained with him even when he was 6,800 miles and a violent world away from his native country.


bbrookover@phillynews.com

@brookob

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