Feature   Know Your Military

Sports Heroes Who Served: Bronze Star Recipient Finds Spot in NFL

May 11, 2021 | BY David Vergun , DOD News

Sports Heroes Who Served is a series that highlights the accomplishments of athletes who served in the U.S. military.

Alejandro Villanueva was born in Meridian, Mississippi, on Sept. 22, 1988. He learned to play rugby in Spain, where his father, a Spanish naval officer, was stationed.

Later, when his father was stationed at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Villanueva learned to play American football with American kids whose parents were serving there.

A football player stands on a football field holding his helmet.
Black Knights
Alejandro Villanueva plays football for the U.S. Military Academy's Black Knights in 2009 or 2010.
Photo By: U.S. Military Academy
VIRIN: 091016-O-D0439-001

After high school in Casteau, Belgium, Villanueva decided to enroll at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York. He was accepted and the academy immediately put his talents to use as a left tackle, defensive lineman and wide receiver for the Black Knights football team.

On May 22, 2010, Villanueva graduated and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army.

After serving as an Army Ranger, one of the service's most challenging assignments, Villanueva decided to pursue a career in the NFL.

On May 5, 2014, he was signed to the Philadelphia Eagles as a defensive end.

After joining the Eagles, Villanueva said that if he hadn't made an NFL roster, he planned to serve a fourth tour of duty in Afghanistan. He had attained the rank of captain and served with 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division, and later in 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment; both units deployed to Afghanistan.

A football player walks on the football field.
Alejandro Villanueva
Alejandro Villanueva with the Pittsburgh Steelers walks on the field in 2015.
Photo By: Courtesy of Jeffrey Beall
VIRIN: 151016-O-D0439-001

During one of his tours in Afghanistan, Villanueva rescued wounded soldiers while under intense enemy fire. For that, he was awarded a Bronze Star Medal with "V" device for valor in combat.

"I see this as a win-win situation," he said before joining the NFL. "Obviously, I'm trying to get to a team and contribute. But if I can't, then I can't wait to get back to the Army and serve in the same manner that I have."

On Aug. 21, 2014, during a preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Villanueva was spotted by Steelers' head coach Mike Tomlin, who was impressed with his athleticism and 6-foot, 10-inch frame. 

On Aug. 31, 2014, eight days after he was waived by the Philadelphia Eagles, the Pittsburgh Steelers signed him to their practice squad and changed his position from defensive end to offensive tackle. 

Throughout the 2014 season, Villanueva was kept on the practice squad to learn the position, put on more weight, and develop his abilities.

Four football players stand on a football field during a game.
Cleveland Browns
Pittsburgh Steeler Alejandro Villanueva, second player from left, plays football in a game against the Cleveland Browns in 2019.
Photo By: Courtesy of Erik Drost
VIRIN: 191016-O-D0439-001

On Jan. 6, 2015, the Pittsburgh Steelers signed him to a two-year contract.

He made his debut during the 2015 season opener against the New England Patriots, playing five snaps as an extra tackle on goal-line plays. He also appeared on special teams and played a few plays at tight end.

On Oct. 18, 2015, he played left tackle against the Arizona Cardinals; a week later he was assigned offensive tackle. In his first season as a starter, he was ranked as the 48th best offensive tackle by the website Pro Football Focus with an overall grade of 47.5.

In 2016, Villanueva once again was named the starting left tackle. He's been credited with helping the Pittsburgh Steelers reach the playoffs that year. He finished the season ranking as the 23rd best offensive tackle in the league after receiving an 82.4 overall grade from Pro Football Focus. 

On July 27, 2017, Villanueva signed a four-year contract extension with the Steelers.

A man wearing a microphone clipped to his collar looks ahead.
Villanueva Speech
U.S. Special Operations Command hosts Pittsburgh Steelers offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva, a former member of the 75th Ranger Regiment. Villanueva delivered a speech at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., Feb. 2, 2019.
Photo By: Air Force Master Sgt. Barry Loo
VIRIN: 190204-F-IJ878-0020

On Dec. 19, 2017, Villanueva was named to his first Pro Bowl. He became the first service academy graduate to play in the Pro Bowl since Roger Staubach in 1979.

Villanueva started all 16 of the team's games in 2017, receiving an overall grade of 74.3 from Pro Football Focus. His grade ranked him 24th among all offensive tackles in the NFL.

On Nov. 25, 2018, Villanueva caught his first career touchdown pass on a fake field goal from Chris Boswell at the end of the first half in a game against the Denver Broncos. He received an overall grade of 78.1 from Pro Football Focus in 2018, which ranked him as the 12th highest grade among qualifying offensive tackles.

Currently, Villanueva is a free agent and is expected to sign with the Baltimore Ravens after the 2021 NFL Draft.

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Sports Heroes Graphic
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Photo By: DOD
VIRIN: 200706-D-ZZ999-903