Before Villanueva stepped onto the football field he had a dream of serving his country. His father was a pilot for the Spanish Navy and his family moved around every three years. Growing up in a military family made him attend the US Military Academy at West Point. Al graduated from West Point in 2010 and went into the Infantry Branch. Villanueva would eventually become a Captain as an Army Ranger.
“There were people rotating throughout to Iraq and Afghanistan. They were the most fascinating,” Villanueva said, in an interview with Military Officer from his home in Pittsburgh. “I always wanted to know where the C-17s would land. I started feeling like I wanted to become one of those officers.”
“You’d hear all the rumors of all the big battalions and divisions that were deploying and to which areas,” Villanueva said. “For me, it was important to make sure I was on one of those C-17s to go out with one of those divisions.”
Villanueva was deployed to Afghanistan for his first deployment after completing Ranger School and Airborne School. He served in the Army for five years and was awarded the Bronze Star for pulling injured soldiers away from harm's way on the battlefield. He went into the 75th Ranger Regiment and deployed two more times. Villanueva acknowledges the football field is much different than the battlefield.
"It’s different in football because you don’t have the structure, the rules, the tradition that you have in the military that keep all the egos together. In the military, things happen a lot easier — tradition, routine, expectations. In the NFL, it’s a little bit more complicated than that, and I think that’s why it’s so rare to find people that can do it consistently for a long period of time."
Al says football is similar to being on the battlefield because you have a sense of urgency and are constantly under pressure.
"My job in the Army was about … visualizing the battlefield at all times, making sure the tasks are being done, whether you need to hurry up, whether you need to slow down, whether you need to be patient or whether you need to be aggressive, where are your soldiers on the field so that they don’t shoot at each other. Those are the types of things that I had to worry about when I was a platoon leader in the Army."
"In the NFL, it’s about keeping your eyes wide open and making sure you don’t miss a tiny movement. It’s a more reactionary sort of skill, being able to give your best, down after down after down. When you feel like you’re tired, to remind yourself the game could be lost in the next play. So it’s a little bit of carryover because you do have the sense of urgency that you have in the military when you’re under pressure."
Villanueva left the Army because he had to wait 18 months for a Command Post. In that same year, he left the Army. He tried out for the Steelers and became a Pro Bowler in 2017 and 2018. Al doesn't like much of the attention he gets, but likes to spend time with his family, and often visits Veterans at the Pittsburgh VA Hospital.
Thank you for your service on and off the field, Big Al.