By Joseph Santoliquito
Philadelphia, PA (CBS) — Alejandro Villanueva carries a square-jawed, wide-eyed presence that you can’t help but notice. He doesn’t consider himself a hero, either. Just a guy doing his job. The kind of vocation that requires crawling under whizzing bullets, the one closest to affecting the battle field. The one who tread in harm’s way to save his buddies. He didn’t do it for accolades, or medals, or to be honored in any parade. He did it for his guys, and for us to enjoy our perks like going to Phillies, Eagles, Sixers and Flyers games.
The hulking U.S. Army Ranger captain served three tours in Afghanistan, once receiving the Bronze Star for Valor for moving forward under enemy fire to pull wounded Rangers from an isolated position.
On Monday, the Eagles granted a dream, signing the 6-foot-9, 277-pound Army grad to a rookie free agent contract. Though he was a wide receiver at Army, where he led the Black Knights during the 2009 season in catches (34), yards (522) and touchdowns (5), the Eagles signed Villanueva as a defensive end.
The 25-year-old caught the Eagles attention at the Super Regional Combine in Detroit during April 12-13.
It’s been four years since Villanueva last strapped on shoulder pads and a helmet. And the odds are terribly long that he makes the team—though he’s overcome long odds before. Try surviving a torrent of bullets.
So who knows?
Villanueva has seen death up close. He has air in his lungs. Suddenly, finding street parking on a busy center-city afternoon isn’t that frustrating. It makes this gravy time for Villanueva, and the many, many like him, whose committed selfless souls keep us safe. Who’s to say what opportunities would be available to anyone in the United States if not for the sacrifices of those in the armed services?
“This opportunity is something that I’ve worked pretty hard for,” said Villanueva, who worked out at the Atlanta Regional coming off a deployment before graduating to the Super Regional. “I’m very blessed and fortunate to have this opportunity. I wasn’t in any shape, to be honest, but once the potential at Atlanta was there to get to the Super Regional. That’s where the Eagles came and took a look at me.”
Villanueva received a number of calls from many teams, but the Eagles showed the most interest. He came to the Eagles’ work out with his receiver gloves and was told to put them away, he wouldn’t need them.
Hands in the dirt is nothing new for Villanueva. It’s up there with missed holidays with his family bearing the elements in a war zone. Many military people tell civilians that they don’t know what combat is like until they’ve been through it.
“The best way to put it is when I got back from my first deployment, I was in the Zhari District, right in the middle of a lot of stuff, so when I got back from Afghanistan, it almost feels like your life starts now,” Villanueva said. “Everything after getting back is plus time in your life. It gives you a very close look at death, and so you really truly appreciate the smaller things. You try to take all of the steps in the right direction, because you know what’s at the end. A lot of times, before I deployed the first time, I thought I was going to live forever. You think you’re indestructible.
“But you start having those experiences, you start seeing how vulnerable your life is, you see how quickly everything can end. I was trying to get back as many times to Afghanistan as I could.”
Villanueva, who was promoted to Captain earlier this month, has been awarded the Bronze Star Medal for Valor, the Ranger Tab, the Parachutist Badge, the Bronze Star Medal for overseas service, National Defense Service Medal, Afghanistan Campaign Medal with Campaign Star, Global War on Terrorism Service Ribbon.
“Serving with soldiers as a platoon leader is the best job that you can have in life,” Villanueva said. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything and I want to go to back, but I’m getting too old. I love interacting with soldiers every day; guys 18, 19-year-old kids from all over the United States and they get sent to a different place and they fight for that flag. That’s pretty awesome. Looking back, I like the way I did it—I served the nation. I wanted to change the battle field. Now I want to give this a shot.”
Villanueva couldn’t sit still while others were fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. He saw and lived through the unthinkable. This chance with the Eagles means he’s entering a different realm of combat, one where life and death isn’t around the next corner.
“I don’t consider myself a hero,” the Bronze medal recipient said. “Everyone is doing the same thing as me. The First Ranger Battalion NCOs [non-commissioned officers] have over 16, 18 deployments. No unit is more deployed than the Rangers. So I served with NCOs that have been deployed 16, 18 times, you feel little standing next to those guys, and it doesn’t matter if you’re 6-10, 300 pounds. Standing next to them, you feel there’s a lot more that you have to do.”
Joseph Santoliquito is a contributing sports blogger for CBS Philly.