Soldiering on

DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Alejandro Villanueva (left) works with Brandon Bair earlier this week.
DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Alejandro Villanueva (left) works with Brandon Bair earlier this week.
Posted: August 08, 2014

ALEJANDRO VILLANUEVA knows his heart will be racing when he sprints out of the tunnel tonight in Chicago.

The Eagles' first preseason test will serve as not only Villanueva's NFL debut, but also his first football game of any kind in exactly 1,700 days. He will be playing a brand-new position and auditioning for his family's future.

The way Villanueva sees it, this experience will not be half as scary as the fields he ran onto in Afghanistan over the past 4 years.

Trying a new position in the NFL may not even be as daunting as transitioning to civilian life.

Villanueva, 25, will spend his final night as an active-duty Army Ranger wearing No. 78 of the Eagles, before his paperwork is officially processed tomorrow to convert him to reserve status.

That such a momentous night in his life will occur in a stadium and monument named "Soldier Field" in honor of fallen American heroes was lost on him until earlier this week when a reporter mentioned it. Villanueva has spent so much time enveloped in a playbook since signing as a free agent in April that he's barely come up for air.

"It's my first game in a long time," Villanueva said with a smile. "That's the main thing, I guess, is to [concentrate] on being able to respond to the pressure and everybody watching - just being able to do what [defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro] has taught me. I try not to think about it. I just try and go out there and do what I'm taught."

Villanueva's last football game was the 110th Army-Navy game at Lincoln Financial Field, on Dec. 12, 2009. After graduating from West Point as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Infantry in 2010, he completed three tours of duty in Afghanistan, including the last two as a Ranger.

He earned a Bronze Star Medal for Valor as a rifle platoon leader for moving under enemy fire to pull his wounded soldiers from their isolated position.

With enough leave time built up to last until now, Villanueva decided in March that he wanted to give football one more shot. He called leaving the military after 4 years - the amount of time required to fulfill his educational commitment from West Point - the "toughest decision of my life."

"It englobes everything in my life I've been doing the past 4 years," Villanueva said, "from showing up at the military academy at the age of 17 . . . to graduating and going into society as an adult and leading men into combat three times, it's really tough to put it all behind and move forward. If I could stay and do both my whole life, I would. But I can't.

"I know I didn't want to serve another 20 years in the military."

Villanueva paid his own way to one of the NFL's regional scouting combines in Flowery Branch, Ga., in March. He caught the eye of a few scouts, which earned him a ticket to the super regional combine at Detroit's Ford Field, where he met with the Eagles and Chip Kelly.

With the first-team defense expected to play just 10 to 15 snaps against the Bears, it will be hard to miss Villanueva when he lines up at defensive end. He is listed with the third string on the depth chart, but he is every enemy's worst nightmare at 6-9 and 317 pounds and not an ounce of fat. The Eagles actually had to instruct Villanueva to stop his morning running routine of 5 miles or more in an attempt to beef him up.

His first 2 weeks of training camp have been slow learning. From Day 1, though, Kelly and the Eagles have taken the long approach with Villanueva - making him a prime candidate to break camp with the Birds on the practice squad, at the very least.

Kelly called Villanueva an "intriguing prospect" a couple weeks back and said he's been "partially amazed that he could do what he's done" already.

"He's got no defensive line background," defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. "At 6-9, it's tough to get too much leverage. We love his strength. One of the things we love about his length is his arm reach and that's why we covet the taller defensive linemen.

"We knew he was a project when we took him on. But the character that he has and the willingness to work and learn, he's a sponge. The offseason without the pads is a little bit easier on everybody; once you started mixing it up with the pads, then you really learn why the technique and the steps are so important. His muscle memory is not there yet and he has reps in front of him, but we love the progress he's making, the man he is and the character he brings to our team. We are very excited about growing him as a player."

The benefit for Villanueva is that he isn't used to one specific position. As a senior captain in 2009, he led Army in catches (34), receiving yards (522) and touchdowns (five) as a wideout. But he started all 12 games as a junior at left tackle. And his first 2 years at Army were on the defensive line.

With the Eagles, he is learning to play defensive end the Azzinaro way, without any preconceived tendencies.

"Nothing is second nature for me," Villanueva said. "It's been slow. I know I have to be more patient with my learning. Sometimes, it's just a sprint to those cuts and I'm trying to survive. In my case, I could have done a lot better the past couple weeks of using my hands and staying low, but I'm working on it. There's things I've identified. It's not like I'm lost."

The NFL's daily mental grind has been equally as tough as the military, Villanueva said. In the Army, where "you can't just quit," he said he wondered if his body would hold up. With the Eagles, his lingering thoughts are, "Am I going to make the team? Am I going to end up somewhere else? Am I never going to play football again?"

The Eagles' first open practice at the Linc was actually a "sad day" for Villanueva, who reminisced about that 2009 Army-Navy contest, where he led all receivers with 62 yards. The Black Knights lost. It was the last time his senior class was on the field together before scattering to different branches and units of the military.

"Some of us had the privilege to see each other in Afghanistan," Villanueva said. "Then we heard about different teammates getting hurt. [The Linc] is a pretty special place. I just remember seeing a lot of my teammates' faces there and having fun, singing the alma mater for the last time."

Out that tunnel tonight is Villanueva's first step in his next life. Inside his beating chest, Villanueva knows the grass in the NFL is decidedly less precarious, but equally unyielding.

"My wife [Madelyn] is the only person I'm trying to impress, truthfully," Villanueva said. "My coaches have invested a lot in me. I completely understand that given all the circumstances, I cannot make excuses for myself. Coach Kelly has put me in the right position and it's time for me to execute.

"I've obviously faced situations that are a lot more dangerous. It's not like I'm scared going out there."


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