When the Oakland Raiders battled the Houston Texans back on November 21st at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, a festive crowd of 76,743 savored every moment. Mexicans go crazy over American football and many identify with Raider Nation across the border. The puzzling part of this extravaganza was that not a single player from either team was of Hispanic descent.
There are a few Latinos who have made their mark in the American version of fútbol, like former Oakland quarterback Jim Plunkett, but most have done it with their foot instead of their arm. Most notable was Argentina’s Martín Gramática (dubbed “Mr. Automaticia”), who won a Super Bowl ring in 2002 as a field goal specialist for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Life was good for Gramática, who signed a record $14.5 million contract with Tampa Bay and played there for five years.
Generally speaking however, Hispanic stars on the gridiron have been few and far between. Unlike Major League Baseball where Spanish is spoken as much as English in every dugout, only about a dozen Latinos suited up during the current NFL season. And only half of those players are present on post-season rosters. Probably the most prominent guy among this group, at least in size, is an offensive tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Alejandro Villanueva, who stands 6′-9″ and tips the scales at 325 pounds, makes his living in the trenches. That’s what he’s used to and that’s the way he likes it. A West Point graduate and former Army Ranger, Villanueva was deployed three times to Afghanistan and awarded the Bronze Star Medal for Valor. The son of a Spanish naval officer who worked for NATO, Villanueva was born on a Naval Air Base in Meridian, Mississippi and grew up playing rugby until his senior year of high school in Belgium. Alejandro played on both sides of the ball including wide receiver for the Army Black Knights, and although not drafted after graduation from the academy in 2010, he was invited to a tryout with the Cincinnati Bengals. When that didn’t pan out, he opted to return to the military.
“My mind and heart (at that time) was going to Afghanistan and serve,” says Villanueva, who would rise to the rank of Captain. “I wanted to see combat and actually tried to get as many deployments as I could.”
After another shot with the Chicago Bears proved unsuccessful in 2012, Villanueva finally signed a pro contract with the Philadelphia Eagles two years later. During a pre-season contest between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, longtime Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin couldn’t help but take notice.
“I looked across the field during the national anthem and saw this guy a head taller than everyone else saluting the flag,” recalls Tomlin. “I wanted to find out more about this enormous human being.”
So when the Eagles ended up cutting Villanueva, the Steelers quickly signed him to a two year deal. After shaking off the rust and some hard work on the practice squad, Alejandro has now been a two-year starter with Pittsburgh at left offensive tackle. Still in his prime at age 28, Villanueva has played in every game this season and has earned the respect of his teammates in more ways than one. Steeler’s Pro Bowl linebacker James Harrison recently spoke of Alejandro’s military sacrifice, and admits to being a huge fan.
“What Al has done is something I couldn’t imagine doing,” notes Harrison, 38, who oozes the toughness of Pittsburgh football. “And he did it, enjoyed it and would do it again.
“We need individuals like him to help secure the freedoms we all enjoy right now.”
Alejandro Villanueva is a gentle giant who shuns publicity and doesn’t care if his name is mentioned in the broadcast booth. None the less, endorsements are mounting, including a T.V. commercial for USAA. And when pressed for his thoughts on the past protests of Colin Kaepernick, it’s clear that this American patriot isn’t pleased about racial injustice in our country. What he questions though, is Kaepernick’s choice of expression.
“I don’t know if the most effective way is to sit down during the national anthem with a country that’s providing you freedom, providing you with $16 million a year…when black minorities fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan are making less than $20,000 a year,” reasons Villanueva. “I think he needs to be a little more careful and look at the big picture.”
-Esteban “Steve” Randel …Headline photo courtesy, zimbio.com; Army Ranger photo courtesy, profootballtalk.nbcsports.com