Sunday, May 18, 2014

From active duty to the NFL, Eagles' Villanueva chases his dream

PHILADELPHIA - At the end of the day most NFL fans arerooting for their favorite laundry.

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld captured that sentiment beautifully in one of his on-
stage bits: "Loyalty to any one sports team is pretty hard to justify, because
the players are always changing; the team could move to another city,"
Seinfeld began before deadpanning, "you're actually rooting for the clothes
when you get right down to it."

The whole concept was never more evident to me than in 2009 when Minnesota
Vikings fans embraced Bret Favre in record time even though perhaps no one
tormented them more over the years.

To the Vikings' faithful, Favre turned in his black hat after a quick pit stop
in New York (the Green and Gold) for the white one (Purple) and all was right
in the world. It was almost like a great babyface turn in professional
wrestling, sort of like when Hulk Hogan returned to the Red and Yellow after
spending years spraying on the fake beard and playing the role of "Hollywood"
Hogan for the dastardly NWO.

There are some athletes you can never justify rooting against, however, no
matter what color scheme they're wearing.

Interestingly it was the uniform that Alejandro Villanueva used to wear that
will make it virtually impossible for fans of the New York Giants, Dallas
Cowboys and Washington Redskins to dislike him even though he now calls
Philadelphia home.

Villanueva spent his last four years in the Army, a timeframe which included
three different stints in Afghanistan totaling 20 months, before resigning his
commission earlier in May to pursue his dream of playing in the NFL and
signing with the Eagles.

"Football is my passion," Villanueva said on Friday as Philadelphia kicked off
its three-day rookie minicamp. "Even when I was in Afghanistan, I was always
turning on (Armed Forces Network) and watching the games. It's a beautiful
game. Obviously, I love competing and I'm taking this as a professional job,
not just as entertainment. Afghanistan is over now, and I've just got to look
past it."

Villanueva signed with the Birds on May 5, turning in his camouflage for the
Midnight Green and agreeing to serve the final year of his active-duty
military obligation in the reserves.

The Eagles, perhaps enamored by Villanueva's impressive length, project the 6-
foot-9, 277-pound West Point grad at defensive end despite the fact he led the
Army in receiving as a senior in 2009 with 34 catches, 522 yards and five
touchdowns.

"I left West Point very unsure about my abilities, because I played three
different positions (defensive end, wide receiver and offensive tackle) and
was never able to build upon what I learned at each position," Villanueva said

If a college was recruiting Villanueva now, it would probably label the raw
talent as an "athlete" while trying to find a position for him.

"I played here in Philadelphia (in the Army-Navy Game) as a tackle and as a
wide receiver. I never knew what my potential could be," Villanueva said. "The
last time I hung up my cleats for Army, I said, 'Man, if I just had one more
season at wide receiver, I could've gotten a thousand yards.' Or if I could've
had another season at tackle, I would've gotten a lot better."

Eagles coach Chip Kelly and general manager Howie Roseman echoed that untapped
potential argument when they scouted Villanueva at an NFL Super Regional
scouting combine in Detroit, inviting him to town for a private workout.

"When we brought him in to work him out, we started to look at him as an
offensive lineman," Kelly said. "We thought he was a big, tall (offensive)
tackle type. But then when you kind of saw him running around, we thought
maybe the best position for him would be defensive end in our system."

Villanueva did start his college career on the defensive side of the ball and
ran a 5.08 40-yard dash while showing off a solid 33-inch vertical leap in the
Motor City, flashing the baseline physical skills a five-technique end needs
to play in the 3-4 alignment Philadelphia defensive coordinator Billy Davis
likes.

And then there's that length, the 6-9 frame which serves as a siren's song to
NFL teams envisioning a JJ Watt-like bat-down machine.

"He's just very athletic. He's got a great vertical jump," Kelly said. "He can
actually move and bend and a lot of different things."

Meanwhile, while far too many other NFL prospects were concerned about chasing
girls or far worse peccadilloes over the prior four years, Villanueva was busy
earning the Bronze Star for Valor after rescuing wounded soldiers from an
isolated outpost during an ambush by the Taliban.

"When you talk about the character component with him, I can't tell you how
impressed you are with him as a person," Kelly continued. "He's a guy that if
you're going to take a shot on somebody, then you'd like to have him on your
side."

Villanueva remains a significant NFL long shot. He hasn't played organized
football since he lined up at tight end in the 2010 East-West Shrine Game and
he will be trying to learn a new position, competing against top-tier athletes
who haven't had a four-year layoff from the game.

"I have very high expectations," Villanueva countered. "I've got a big frame
and the coaches have a lot of expectations as far as what I can do in the
field."

Don't bet against him.

As difficult as making an NFL football team can be, it's a walk in the park
compared to the three tours of Afghanistan Villanueva endured.

"I think that with football and the military, you just take one day at a
time," Villanueva said. "There are a lot of days in Afghanistan where you have
really rough days where not everybody makes it back from a mission or somebody
gets hurt. In the military you owe it your guys and in football you owe it to
yourself."

And we all owe plenty to Villanueva no matter what uniform he ends up wearing.
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