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How a Spaniard is making his mark at American football’s highest level

After serving in Afghanistan, Alejandro Villanueva now plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers

Alejandro Villanueva in his number 78 shirt during training.
Alejandro Villanueva in his number 78 shirt during training.Keith Srakocic / AP

Regarded as a kind of Spanish ambassador of American football, 27-year-old Alejandro Villanueva has fulfilled two essential requirements to play in the highly competitive NFL. Born in Mississippi to Spanish parents, he has established his versatility as a left tackle, tasked with protecting a right-handed quarterback’s blind side. Second, he has benefited from the opportunities provided by a league in which players are constantly getting injured, such as the previous left tackle at his team, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Though the side just failed to make this Sunday's Super Bowl, losing out in the playoffs, just a few months after his first game, Villanueva is now a fixture at the Steelers. He has likened his post to his role of leading a unit of 38 soldiers in the US army in Afghanistan when he was aged 23.

Villanueva only began playing American football at a US school in Belgium in his teens

Villanueva only began playing American football in his teens. For the first four years of his life, he lived on the naval base at Meridian, Mississippi – where his father was stationed while serving in the Spanish navy. The family then returned to Spain, before moving on to Belgium, where Villanueva first began playing American football at the SHAPE High School, an academy run by the US Department of Defense in the village of Casteau.

Former schoolmate Joe Puttmann says Villanueva started out playing rugby, but was recruited to join the American football side, a game he barely knew the rules of. In one early match, the opposing team was in victory formation and the referee was late blowing the whistle to end the play. Villanueva had been coached to keep going through the whistle, says Puttmann, and hit the quarterback hard. “My mom had to come on the field to calm things down,” remembers Puttnam, laughing.

When Puttmann moved on to West Point, he mentioned Villanueva. “He could have been part of the offensive lineup of any university in the United States, but his education led him to West Point,” he says. Villanueva studied engineering at the elite military college, and later served three tours in Afghanistan. “He knew he could return to football,” says Puttmann, pointing out that Villanueva was awarded the Bronze Star. “When he had the chance to develop his skills as a player,” he did.

“He could have been part of the offensive lineup of any university in the United States”

At West Point, Villanueva moved from a defensive position to offensive. At 2.10 meters, he was the tallest player in the side. “He was much more useful in attack because he wasn’t as fast as other, less tall defenders. After switching, he had two successful years, and could even have played tight end because of his ability to accelerate rapidly,” says Puttmann. He unsuccessfully tried out for the Cincinnati Bengals and the Chicago Bears in this position. In 2014, the Philadelphia Eagles signed him to play defense, but then dropped him before the season began.

Surprised at his height in a pre-season game, the Steelers, who have won six Super Bowls, signed him in January 2015, moving him to the offensive line. “They have seen the fruits, and very quickly, because the left tackle is the most difficult position in the lineup,” says Fernando Von Rossum, the Steelers’ representative in Mexico for the last 11 years. “There have been plays when he has been overcome, but he is a diamond in the rough and will continue to rise.

“The quarterback is the guy who takes you to the promised land or sinks you, so his job is to protect that investment,” he adds.

“There is clear recognition on the part of the NFL. October is Hispanic month, there are more and more games with Spanish-language commentary on the big channels and the teams have Spanish websites. It’s interesting to see players like Alejandro,” says Von Rossum.

After a decade-long friendship, Puttmann says he saw Villanueva’s potential long ago. “He has always been charismatic. From his military experience he understand the importance of making a decision based on the information you have at the time and he is prepared to take responsibility. He started playing later than most people, but all this has allowed him to make up for it.”

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