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Former Army Ranger trying to grab Steelers roster spot

By ED BOUCHETTE | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Tribune News Service) | Published: August 20, 2015

Tackle Alejandro Villanueva, says teammate Ramon Foster, is not one to sit on the sidelines. He did not mean football either, although the way Villanueva's career has ascended with the Steelers, that might be said as well.

The fact he had three tours of combat duty as an Army Ranger captain in Afghanistan and is on the brink of earning a roster spot with the Steelers would be inspirational enough. That he also did not play football for five years, that he first signed last year as a defensive end with the Eagles and could become the Steelers No. 3 offensive tackle is right up there with the Rocky Bleier story.

Villanueva has not talked much publicly about his action in Afghanistan, but has told a few war stories at the urging of teammates. In one, Foster related, Villanueva led a rifle platoon on an assignment with Afghan soldiers.

They proceeded toward a mosque when shots rang out and one Afghan soldier dropped dead with a bullet through his head.

Villanueva could add more perspective to what it's like to go from real war combat to the "trenches" of pro football, but he prefers to talk about his current job. He earned a Bronze Star among his military medals. His goal now is to earn a spot on the Steelers' 53-man roster.

He has gone about that the hard way, too.

Recruited as a tight end at West Point from SHAPE American High School in Belgium, he started his junior season at left tackle. He moved to starting wide receiver as a senior in 2009 with the Cadets, then moved into military service.

Five years later, he signed with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2014 as a defensive end after a super regional combine in Atlanta. They cut him after training camp, the Steelers signed him and put him at tackle on their practice squad.

Today, at 6 feet 9 and nearly 100 pounds heavier at 340, it looks as if he will be the team's No. 3 offensive tackle behind starters Kelvin Beachum and Marcus Gilbert. They had him at left tackle until this week when line coach Mike Munchak moved him to the right so he can have experience on both sides.

"He's learning and doing it at a fast pace, which is a credit to him as far as his work ethic," Munchak said. "He fits in that room; the guys have a great admiration for him, for what he's doing and what he did being in the military and for our country."

Foster has been an offensive lineman all his life and is impressed with the quick transition made by Villanueva, who turns 27 next month.

"I don't think he realizes what's going on because he's so day to day," Foster said. "He's stepped in a big, big way in things they've asked him to do."

He was born to Spanish parents at a Navy station in Mississippi, his father a lieutenant commander in the Spanish Navy. He grew up in the United States, Spain and Belgium, where he went to high school and learned to play football.

He never thought he could make a living at it while attending West Point or marching in Afghanistan.

"When I got out of the Army, I had couple teammates in the NFL," said Villaneuva, which inspired him to give it a try. "I was in really good shape and felt I had some juice left."

Munchak, a Pro Football Hall of Fame guard, said Villanueva has the talent, the drive and all he needed was practice and patience.

"He took a big break," Munchak said of that five-year football layoff. "That's what's made it more of a challenge for him to come back and not only find his niche -- I think he's found that, no doubt, it's offensive tackle -- but catching up again and getting as many reps as he can.

"He had the feet, I think it's more how to use what he has. You can't get it all at once, so it's baby steps: Let's work on the stance, let's work on staying square and using those long arms."

His biggest adjustment?

"Football as a whole," Villanueva said. "Everything is an adjustment. I started from zero. I'm learning. I played defensive line. I started from scratch. I would say everything has been a challenge."

Turns out, the Steelers need Villanueva. Mike Adams remains on the physically unable to perform list after July back surgery and there's no telling when he might be able to return -- and get back into shape to play football. He served as their No. 3 tackle last season. There is no other tackle on their roster with any pro experience.

"Al's a confident guy," Munchak said. "He has high expectations. He wants it now."

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