On Monday, the Philadelphia Eagles signed Alejandro Villanueva, an Army Ranger who did three tours in Afghanistan, to a rookie free agent contract.
The 6-foot-9, 277-pound Villanueva last played organized football in 2009 at Army, where he spent time as an offensive lineman, defensive lineman, and wide receiver. Villanueva went undrafted and signed with the Cincinnati Bengals for a short tryout, but because of strict military academy rules, Villanueva had to enlist rather than chase his NFL dreams. Instead, he became a U.S. Army Ranger and served three deployments in Afghanistan, earning several decorations for his service, including a Bronze Star.
He was recently promoted to Captain, before deciding to give football one more shot. The Eagles picked him up after seeing him perform at "regional combine" event in Detroit.
Not that the 25-year-old is totally out of football practice. Villanueva told NFL Network last month that he's been playing plenty of football overseas. Not many current NFL player can say they have dodge bullets on the field.
"But I would say that, the best football experience the last four years was what we called HLZ football -- the Helicopter Landing Zone. The smaller copter we had in Zare (in Afghanistan), we had teams, and it used to get really competitive. You play on the rocks and the gravel, and you fall and you can get injured pretty badly. Sometimes there would be shooting while we were playing, and we'd have to get down on the ground and whatnot.
That story is both fear-inducing and inspiring for NFL acolytes who love to reference the "war room" and "battlefield" of sports. In all, Villanueva's signing is a heart-warming story of a proud American fighting for his country and fighting for his dreams.
However, Villanueva is realistic about his chances. Though he last played as a receiver in college, the Eagles envision him and his size as a potential defensive lineman. But he wasn't a particularly good D-lineman in college, which is partly why Army moved him to play left tackle and receiver. Villanueva readily admits he's a "longshot," a declaration ProFootballTalk agreed with.
"I can run five miles pretty fast," Villanueva told NFL Network. "But my 40-yard dash is not where it needs to be." Indeed, old clips of Villanueva highlights mostly consist of him using that height to jump over defenders rather than run by them.
In any case, at least Villanueva has a good attitude about the whole thing, whether or not he sticks around on the Eagles when the season begins. "Obviously, I'm trying to get to a team and contribute," he said before signing with the Eagles. "But if I can't, then I can't wait to get back to the Army and serve in the same manner that I have."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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