From the battlegrounds in Afghanistan to the gridiron in the City of Brotherly Love. There may be more talented players and ones more likely to make the Philadelphia Eagles roster than Alejandro Villanueva, but arguably none have a better story to tell.
The Eagles signed Villanueva, a former U.S. Army Captain who served three active tours in Afghanistan, to a rookie free-agent contract Monday. Villanueva is expected to play defensive line in Philadelphia and has been attempting a return to football since earlier this year. He participated in April's Super Regional Combine in Detroit, where he caught the eye of Eagles scouts.
Listed at 6'9" and 277 pounds, Villanueva last played football for Army in 2009. Then a wide receiver, he made 34 receptions for 522 yards and five touchdowns as a senior. Villanueva previously played offensive tackle and on the defensive line, earning himself a captaincy and the respect of teammates for his willingness to fill in wherever needed.
The Cincinnati Bengals brought him in for a tryout following his senior season, but Villanueva soon began serving his active duty requirements. In three separate tours in the Middle East, Villanueva earned myriad awards and commendations for his service.
Notably, he received the Bronze Star Medal for Valor, considered the fourth-highest individual award given by the United States military. He earned the honor after pulling wounded soldiers out of danger despite oncoming enemy fire.
After returning from his latest tour of active duty, Villanueva decided to give the NFL one final shot. He began working out to get into football shape, looking to pare time off his 40-yard dash and other athletic splits in hopes of impressing scouts.
"I can run five miles pretty fast," Villanueva told NFL.com's Albert Breer in April. "But my 40-yard dash is not where it needs to be."
While a physical specimen whose profile is undoubtedly tantalizing, Villanueva is raw for a 25-year-old prospect. His time on the defensive line was minimal in college, and he only played two years of high school football before arriving at West Point.
Taking four full years off from the game also puts him behind the curve of even a majority of other undrafted free agents Philadelphia brings into the fold. Though terms were undisclosed, contracts for undrafted players typically carry minimal to no guaranteed money.
The Eagles' rookie minicamp takes place from May 16 to May 18, where Villanueva will likely get his longest and hardest look. If he's able to impress, Chip Kelly and Co. might keep him around for organized team activities in June. If not, Villanueva told Breer he plans on re-enlisting in the Army and continuing his career in a far different form of combat:
The four years I've had in the Army have been the best four years you could ask for. The guys I served with ... above me and under me ... were phenomenal guys. They were good experiences that made me the man I am today. But now, I see this as a win-win situation. Obviously, I'm trying to get to a team and contribute. 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.
In cases like these, it's understandable to look from the outside with skepticism. The overwhelming likelihood remains that the Eagles release Villanueva before even the first cut of training camp. Such is the case for a majority of rookie free agents—especially ones working at such a disadvantage from an experience standpoint.
If there ever were someone to root for, though, it's Villanueva. He spent the last four years of his life putting his football aspirations on hold to serve his country, doing so in such honorable fashion that he's been awarded numerous medals and commendations.
With his combination of size and strength, it's hard to blame the Eagles for taking a shot.
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