Extra Points: Active duty to the NFL, Villanueva chases his dream

 

The Sports Network

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - At the end of the day most NFL fans are rooting for their favorite laundry.

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," the comedian said 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 had 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 currently 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."

Finally, 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 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 has already 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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