When football players at the United States Military Academy walk onto the field, either at their home field at Michie Stadium or on the road, they place their hands on a bronze plaque inscribed with a quote from General George C. Marshall, US Army Chief of Staff during World War II. The plaque reads, “I want an officer for a secret and dangerous mission. I want a West Point football player.” I’ve always loved that quote, and it is easy to understand why it became a rallying cry/slogan for Army Football (especially since Marshall was not a West Point man himself….he studied at the Virginia Military Institute). Steelers offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva would have touched that plaque dozens of time during his playing days for the Black Knights, and, like so many of his teammates before and after, would prove that Marshall was wise to search for the brightest, strongest, and bravest of a generation inside the West Point football locker room.
They say that for most college football players, practice is the toughest part of the day. At the service academies, football practice is the easiest part of the day. From breakfast formation before 0700 to TAPS and lights out at 2330, nearly every minute of the day is planned. Obviously, there are no cupcake classes at the academies. When you’re educating future officers of the mightiest military the world has ever known, there is not a lot of time to squeeze “Intro to Jazz” into the curriculum. No, the quality of the on-field product at the military academies isn’t the strongest, and you rarely see their graduates pursue athletic careers in professional team sports. Of course, the mandatory term of active duty that academy graduates serve is a not-insignificant obstacle to playing games for a living. That makes the story of Alejandro Villanueva all the more unlikely, interesting, and worthy of celebration.
I’m sure that you’ve heard some of the stories of Villanueva’s active duty exploits since he stepped into his new role as the Steelers left tackle during the win over Arizona: he enrolled in Airborne and Ranger School after earning his commission as a second lieutenant in the United States Army, then went on to serve multiple deployments in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. As a rifle platoon leader, he was awarded the Bronze Star for rescuing fellow soldiers injured by enemy fire. He continues to serve in the Army reserves, and, never one to shy away from a challenge, he has enrolled in graduate classes at Carnegie Mellon’s business school.
After the things Villanueva has experienced in his military life, squaring up with pass-rushing defensive ends and linebackers must seem like a walk in the park. This past Sunday, Villanueva got his first career NFL start. He did some things well. He made some mistakes. That’s to be expected for any player making their first start, let alone a 27 year-old rookie who was playing defensive end in Philadelphia Eagles training camp just last summer. Mike Tomlin noticed the massive Army Ranger standing on the Eagles sideline before a preseason game last year, saluting during the national anthem, and needed to know more about the man enemy forces in Afghanistan referred to as “the Giant.” A season on the Steelers’ practice squad and 90 pounds added to his 6’9” frame later, and he’s protecting Landry Jones’s blind side.
This Sunday, Ben Roethlisberger will (likely) return for a game against the undefeated Bengals, a game the Steelers must win if they hope to keep their chances of winning the AFC North alive into the second half of the season. When Roethlisberger comes back, the pressure on Villanueva will increase exponentially, especially if the quarterback returns at less than 100% health. Based on what I’ve learned about Alejandro Villanueva in the past weeks and months, I’ve got the unwavering feeling that his performances will improve with each passing week. With Kelvin Beachum out for the year, he’ll need to continue to improve if the Steelers’ talented offensive players are going to reach their collective potential.
Quite frankly, though, Villanueva will be a Steeler that I’ll cheer for and remember for a long, long time, regardless of how he plays. We hear about the bad guys in the NFL all the time. Greg Hardy won “Jagoff of the Week” on TribLIVE Radio for his continued clownish behavior (on and off the field). Stories like that are all too common and become amplified because they drive discussion and page views, but people should hear more about the good and the uplifting, as well. I like that the Steelers have a legitimate American hero manning the left side of their offensive line, and I don’t care how many sacks he gives up. If he improves, that’s great. If he doesn’t…..oh, well. Villanueva has already done more for me than I could ever possibly repay. General Marshall would be proud.