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Steelers' Villanueva thankful for SHAPE's role in his career

Pittsburgh Steelers offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva (78) is the sole member of the team to stand in the open for the national anthem while his teammates remained in the tunnel before a game against the Chicago Bears on Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017, at Soldier Field in Chicago, Ill.

ERIN HOOLEY, CHICAGO TRIBUNE/TNS

By MICHAEL S. DARNELL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 2, 2017

Pittsburgh Steeler Alejandro Villanueva knows what it’s like to have to fight. As one of the men responsible for keeping Ben Roethlisberger upright on a weekly basis, he’s had to block some of the fiercest defensive talents in the National Football League.

Prior to that, he was an Army Ranger and a rifle platoon leader in the 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, whose actions while deployed to Afghanistan in 2011 earned him a Bronze Star with “V” for valor.

But before all of that, he was just a student athlete playing in a small ecosystem. The eventual NFL player spent his formative playing years as a defensive end at SHAPE American High School in Belgium, just one of many athletes playing under the relatively small DODEA Europe umbrella.

“I think that the opportunity to play in SHAPE football is something that the NFL could never buy,” Villanueva said. “It’s an experience that they would not understand for the rest of their lives how much does it mean.”

Few outside of DODEA sports could. Student athletes in the DODEA education system usually find themselves in a smaller, less visible community than their peers stateside. It’s a different world they live in than that of a traditional high school athlete.

American towns across the Midwest and South have big stadiums packed with fans from the local communities on game night. In DODEA, the athletes are no less competitive, but the smaller stadiums are rarely filled to capacity. Schools such as Vilseck or Ansbach, with traditionally strong football programs and some talent on the field, simply won’t get the same number of viewers as those stateside.

That doesn’t mean the dream of making football a career isn’t strong among the players there. David Vidovic, a former Vilseck running back, now plays at Juniata College. Former Ansbach star Dominique Whaley went on to play for the Sooners.

Villanueva was once one of those players, in what was then called DODDS-Europe. In 2005, the already 6-foot-7, 265-pound senior made the All-Europe team.

“I got the chance to go to SHAPE … get on a bus on a Friday and go to wake up in Baumholder or go all the way to Hanau and sleep on the gym floor that Friday night and play on Saturday,” Villanueva recalled. “It’s a surreal experience. The education you get in DODDS Europe is the best. I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.”

His 36 tackles and five sacks that year were good enough to make waves in DODEA Europe, but it didn’t get him many looks from college scouts. Villanueva was a walk-on at West Point, where he played a variety of positions. He went undrafted, eventually ending up trying out for the Bengals and Bears, both of whom passed on him.

“I was never satisfied with what the coaches were telling me about my performance,” Villanueva said. “That’s what went through my mind when a coach would say ‘Hey man, this is not for you, you should do something else.’ I never listened to any of those people.”

So, he kept trying and eventually the Steelers took a chance on him, saying to him “we’ll develop you and then we’ll see if what you think is true.’”

Considering Villanueva just this summer signed a 4-year, $24 million contract, it seems his determination paid off.

All of his success, his career in both the military and in the NFL, he attributes in part to the foundation built at DODEA. He added that kids playing today have a world of opportunity available to them and that they shouldn’t let the system’s relatively small footprint get in the way of their dreams.

“The fact that they grew up in a close environment with unbelievable values that obviously come from the military is something that they’ll be more thankful than having a call from Nick Saban himself,” he said.

The variables needed to make it in the NFL are too great to bank on that as being a career choice, he added, but the right footing can set up players, even in small systems like DODEA, on the path to success.

“There are so many variables [to make it to the NFL], there are so many factors involved … the things that you can control are education and values,” Villanueva said. “Playing in DODDS Europe was by far the best thing that could’ve happened in my life.”

darnell.michael@stripes.com

Army's Alejandro Villanueva tries to break away from Navy linebacker Craig Schaefer after catching a pass in the 2009 Army-Navy game at Philadelphia. Villanueva caught five passes for 62 yards, but Navy won, 17-3.
JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES

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