BTU #195 - Active Duty Army to the NFL (Alejandro Villanueva)

I never really wanted to go pro. To me it was not one of those things I had in mind. The priority for me has always been to have a family.
— Alejandro Villanueva

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Alejandro Villanueva is a Left tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He started out at West Point, where he played left tackle, defensive lineman, and wide receiver. He was voted to be team captain his final year at West Point, and a feature story in the Army football program read, "Already touted as the tallest football player in the country, Villanueva completed the transformation from being an offensive lineman for the past two years, to running routes on the field with the starting offense last Saturday night.” He served as a Captain in the Army, as an Army Ranger and was decorated with a Bronze Star for valor, having served three tours of duty in Afghanistan. After his military service he was signed by the Philadelphia Eagles, and later after by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Why Listen: 
Alejandro went directly from Active Duty to the NFL, a feat that few have accomplished. His story is one of determination, perspective, and family-first values.

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Selected Resources: 

Transcript & Time Stamps:

2:07

Joining me today from Pittsburgh, PA is Alejandro Villanueva. Alejandro is a left tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He played left tackle, defensive lineman, and wide receiver at West Point. He was voted as team captain during his senior year. A feature story in the Army football program read, “Already touted as the tallest football player in the country, Villanueva completed the transformation from being an offensive lineman for the past two years, to running routes on the field with the starting offense last Saturday night.” He served as a Captain in the Army, as an Army Ranger and was decorated with a Bronze Star for valor, having served three tours of duty in Afghanistan. After his military service he was signed by the Philadelphia Eagles, and later after by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

3:22

How did you originally start playing football?

I grew up doing everything but contact sports. I was a swimmer my whole life. But it got to a point where the amount of practice was getting to be too much. And it’s kind of a lonely sport, too. So I started playing rugby. When I moved to Belgium my junior year of high school, my school had a team so I started playing. It was a great experience for me because I don’t think I would have been able to play in the United States. I really fell in love with the sport and I’ve been playing ever since.

4:45

At what point did you decide that this was something you wanted to do as your career?

I never really wanted to go pro. To me it was not one of those things I had in mind. Football wasn’t really a priority in my life. It is now because it’s a way I can provide for my family. The priority for me has always been to have a family.

I always liked the structure and values of the military. Because of that I wanted to serve and have that for my family. But life takes a lot of turns. I got into the military when we were at war and everyone was deploying. It was a real passion for me but the war in Afghanistan was not as relevant as it had been so in 2014 I decided to get out of the military and try to pursue something different. I don’t think anyone has plans of becoming a professional athlete because it’s so difficult to do and requires a lot of luck.

6:30

How did the transition out of the military and into professional sports go for you?

It was hard to prepare for it because there aren’t a lot of players from West Point that go through that process. Some people commission and then try to stay as close to the game as possible. They try to get assignments close to training centers so that they can stay in shape and go to tryouts. My experience was completely different. I had no interest in staying close to football. I really wanted to experience the military and the infantry to the fullest.

When I decided I wanted to try to pursue football, I tried out right after I got back from a deployment. I went to Detroit for an open tryout. I went there and I got a private workout offer from the Philadelphia Eagles. I ended up signing a contract with the Eagles and then it got a little complicated because I was still active duty in the military. I was still an XO of a Company. I had to initiate the process of getting out of the military and turning in all of my equipment. At that time I had 60 days of leave built up so I would take leave from Monday to Thursday to work out with the Eagles in Philadelphia. Then I would drive from Philadelphia to Savannah where I was stationed and be at work on Friday and then spend time with my wife during the weekend. I did that from April to June and then went back to Savannah for five weeks when I was off from workouts with the Eagles and then for training camp I used my last few days of leave. The way it happened was that the final day of cuts with the Eagles was my last day of active duty in the Army. They actually cut me a couple days before my end date. The Steelers called a few days later and I ended up signing with their practice squad.

10:00

Wow, that’s wild. I can’t even imagine that emotional roller coaster.

You get pinned against the wall and you can’t quit. You have to keep moving forward. It was obviously a very stressful time. There was the pressure of making the team because I was leaving behind a great job in the Ranger Regiment. And also because my family was on hold. When I was getting out of the military and the Eagles cut me I really didn’t know what was going to happen. In the end I got lucky and it really worked out for me.

11:40

What is your life like throughout the year?

The routine as a professional athlete is so predictable. I know where I’ll be everyday throughout the year. The weeks look exactly the same. I do nothing outside of my routine.

The week starts after a game on Sunday. When I get home I’m too wired to go to bed so I stay up all night watching history documentaries. On Monday morning, we have to go in at 1 pm. We usually get a lift in and then watch film. Tuesday is our day off but usually we get another lift in and watch more film. Getting your lifts in is crucial in order to stay in shape throughout the season. Wednesday is the longest day. You start at 6 in the morning and wrap up at 6 pm. After that I go home and spend time with my family. Thursday is the same and then Friday is a half day. Saturday we have a walkthrough in the morning whether it’s in Pittsburgh or on the road. And then Sunday is gameday.  

14:05

That sounds intense - like there is always something going on.

It’s not too bad because you know exactly what is going to happen. So there is a lot of predictability. It also helps reduce the stress.

14:40

And what is the offseason like?

The offseason can be more challenging because you go from having a structured routine to not having that. After you’ve been through a full season, you’re body is extremely fatigued. So you want to give yourself a good month after the season to rest your body. A couple years ago I started an MBA program at Carnegie Mellon University. I take classes during the offseason and sometimes even during the season. So the offseason usually entails spending a lot of time with my family and going to class.

16:20

As a professional athlete, you’re living many people’s dream. I admire that despite that, you continue to work on your education and various side pursuits.

To say that I’m living the dream might be a little bit of a stretch. Everyone has their own struggles in life. I’ve never looked at my own life as something people would envy. I have my own struggles as well. At the end of the day, I live under a lot of pressure. The media can really hammer you every time you have a bad game. So it’s not like you can really relax and kick back. You’re constantly being reminded of what you need to do to put your family in a good position.

17:30

What do your teammates think of being on a team with a military veteran?

Guys arrive at the NFL in many different ways. It not always the top draft picks that end up on the team. But I don’t know honestly. You would have to ask them. I consider myself extremely lucky to have had people that helped put me in this position.

18:55

What advice do you have for a veteran that wants to pursue working in sports?

The NFL is not a very fair or easy place to get into because there’s so many players trying out every year. Something has to happen that is going to make you stand out. That could be someone getting hurt or a particular relationship with a coach. You have to have something unique about you especially if you’re coming from the military.

But I always warn people though that come out of the military that are looking for something easy or high paying to be careful for what you wish for. Because you aren’t likely to find happiness going that route. The things that should give you the most value in your life are friends and family.

21:05

What did you take from your experience in the Army that helps you today as a professional athlete?

I’m raising kids now and I try to instill some of the values I have in them. One of the things West Point really gave me was the ability to overcome challenges whether that was academic or physical. At West Point, I was so embarrassed to quit or go back home without achieving what I wanted. That allowed me to overcome challenges such as Ranger School or NFL tryouts. West Point gives you a four year challenge of taking away many comforts and pushes you find success despite that.

23:05

Was there anything you didn’t expect about the transition out of the military?

When I was at West Point and on the football team, I had 120 friends and we were brothers. And then I was also surrounded by the corps of cadets. So it was always easy to make friends. Then I moved into the Army and I had a unit where again I was surrounded by people that cared about me. But then as I got out of the military, those relationships can go away and you miss that. Today I get fulfillment from being around my family and teammates but it’s not quite the same as when you’re deployed for 12 months to Kandahar. So I miss though relationships I had while serving on active duty.

25:40

Do you have any resources you would recommend to veterans?

I like to read. I just read the book Sapiens. It gives you a good perspective on the way that humans have come up with everything around us and the mindset we have when making decisions.

I would also recommend networking and LinkedIn as tools to help you when you leave the military. If you’re able to really use LinkedIn well, it can offer you many career opportunities.

27:51

Is there anything else you’d like to share with our listeners?

In the military, you always have a safety net that will prop you up and give you another opportunity. But you lose that safety net when you get out of the military. I know from experience because I’ve experienced that low of the low after getting out of the military. I had an issue clearing my equipment after getting out of the military. They issued me a debt but the address on my DD214 was erroneous and so they sent it to the wrong address. So I was not aware of the debt and my credit score went down to 500. I was not able to apply for loans for business school. I was also not able to rent an apartment. And at that time I didn’t know if I was going to make a team for the next season. The transition is difficult but if you trust in the values and skills you learned in the military, it will have a happy ending. So don’t get up when you lose that safety net. Continue to work hard and believe in yourself.

31:04

That’s great. I really appreciate that candor and perspective.

Absolutely. When things don’t line up after you get out of the military, it can be difficult. But if you fall 1000 times, you just have to get up 1001 times.