Villanueva, an Army Ranger whose numerous military honors include the Bronze Star for Valor, which he received in 2011 during his first deployment in Afghanistan after rescuing wounded soldiers from an isolated position during an ambush by the Taliban, resigned his commission on May 2 to pursue his dream of playing in the NFL. He signed with the Eagles 3 days later. He will serve the remaining year of his active-duty military obligation in the reserves.
The 6-9, 277-pound Villanueva played defensive end, offensive tackle and wide receiver at Army. Led the team in receiving as a senior in '09 with 34 catches, 522 yards and five touchdowns, and was the team's offensive captain. But he hasn't played in an organized football game since the 2010 East-West Shrine Game, when he lined up as a tight end.
The Eagles have moved him back to the very first position he played when he arrived at Army - defensive end.
"I left West Point very unsure about my abilities, because I played three different positions and was never able to build upon what I learned at each position," Villanueva said yesterday, on the first day of the Eagles' 3-day rookie minicamp.
"I played here in Philadelphia [in the Army-Navy Game] as a tackle and as a wide receiver. I never knew what my potential could be. The last time I hung up my cleats for Army, I said, 'Man, if I just had one more season at wide receiver, I could've gotten a thousand yards.' Or if I could've had another season at tackle, I would've gotten a lot better.
"I had a lot of questions in my mind when I came here for the workout. At the end of the day, when they showed interest, it was a very exciting opportunity for me, and I decided to try and take advantage of it."
General manager Howie Roseman and head coach Chip Kelly saw Villanueva at a Super Regional scouting combine in Detroit last month and invited him to Philadelphia for a private workout.
Villanueva's measurables stack up pretty favorably with most of the 3-4 defensive ends in the draft, including the Eagles' fifth-round pick, Taylor Hart. Villanueva ran a 5.08 40 and a 4.30 in the 20-yard shuttle, had a 33-inch vertical jump and a 9-foot, 6-inch broad jump, and did 20 reps in the 225-pound bench press.
Hart ran a 4.86 40, and a 4.60 in the shuttle, had a 30-inch vertical and an 8-foot, 9-inch broad jump, and had 21 reps in the bench press. But Hart has been playing football at Oregon the last 4 years. Villanueva has been fighting the Taliban.
"When we brought him in to work him out, we started to look at him as an offensive lineman," Kelly said. "We thought he was a big, tall [offensive] tackle type. But then when you kind of saw him running around, we thought maybe the best position for him would be defensive end in our system. So that's kind of where we plugged him in.
"He's just very athletic. He's got a great vertical jump. He can actually move and bend and a lot of different things. And then, when you talk about the character component with him, being a captain in the Army Rangers and serving three tours in Afghanistan, I think just being around him was - you can just - I can't tell you how impressed you are with him as a person. He's a guy that if you're going to take a shot on somebody, then you'd like to have him on your side."
Villanueva is a guy Eagles fans will root for to make the team. But it will be an uphill battle for him. For starters, there's his age and the 4-year layoff from football. Then there's the fact he's trying to make the team at a position he hasn't played in 8 years. If ever there was a prime candidate for the practice squad, it's him.
"I have very high expectations," he said. "I've got a big frame and the coaches have a lot of expectations as far as what I can do in the field. But a lot of it is just psychologically being able to meet those expectations as well."
He said he intends to approach his quest to make the Eagles' roster the same way he approached the 20 months he spent in Afghanistan - one day at a time.
"There were a lot of days in Afghanistan where you have really rough days," he said. Where not everybody gets back from a mission, or somebody gets hurt. The only difference is, in the military, you owe it to your guys. In football, you owe it to yourself.
"You just have to reset your mind each day and seize the next day, and try to do the best you can. Keeping emotions or other thoughts in your head is going to slow you down and prevent you from being the leader you want to be in combat or the football player that you want to be on the field."
Villanueva said he enjoyed his 4 years in the Army, particularly his three deployments in Afghanistan.
"You really can't prepare for some of the things that happen," he said. "You'll be surprised at how you react to some of the things. Some people brag about being extremely brave in combat, then all of a sudden, they get scared.
"Then other people who might seem very shy or have issues with confidence all of a sudden show the most incredible bravery in combat.
"I love war. Just because you see the worst of humankind and the best of humankind at the same time."
Villanueva said he would've been happy being an Army lifer. But he got married last November, and that changed his view of things.
"We decided that I wasn't going to stay in," he said. "You move around a lot in the military. There's a lot of sacrifice. I've been watching a lot of the soldiers that we have in our nation going through tough times with their families. I decided I was going to leave after 5 years."
Villanueva acknowledged his three deployments in Afghanistan changed his perspective on life.
"When you get back from your first deployment," he said, "you think every single moment from that day on is a plus. It's almost like having a pretty bad car accident [and surviving]). Everything after that is a plus because your life should've ended that day."
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