Steelers tackle Alejandro Villanueva might be the most famous offensive lineman in football.
Villanueva is having a great season at tackle for the Steelers, but he gets the most shine when the action is stopped. That’s when Villanueva’s commercial with USAA airs, and fans can learn about his unique story. Unlike most commercials, Villanueva’s story is worth telling. The son of a Spanish Naval officer, Villanueva played football at West Point and served three tours in Afghanistan. On his way to becoming a literal American hero, he married his wife Maddy.
Here’s what you need to know about Villanueva and his family:
1. He Played Wide Receiver at Army
When Villanueva was 15 years old, he was attending a U.S, Military-funded high school in Casteau, Belgium. His friend, Puttmann, was being recruited to play defensive back at West Point. Puttmann was headed to the U.S. for prep school, but implored the coaches to look at Villanueva as well. Villanueva was a monster 15-year old, but had zero experience playing football.
Villanueva’s entire family is from Spain, but Villanueva was born in Mississippi while his father was stationed there as part of the Spanish Navy. He played rugby, but had a slow adjustment to football. Villanueva’s playing time grew steadily over his years at Army, mostly positioned as a lineman.
Before the 2009 season, new Army head coach Rich Ellerson moved Villanueva to wide receiver. At the time, he was 6’9″ and weighing in at 295 pounds. He finished his senior year with 34 catches for 522 yards and five touchdowns.
2. The Couple Were Married in 2015
Madelyn met Alejandro through her brother Joe Muldoon, who played with Villanueva at Army. Muldoon would bring Villanueva and another friend to his home in Maryland for the holidays, and his mother referred to them as her “West Point sons.” That’s when he first met Maddy, but it wasn’t until years later that they reconnected.
It was after Villanueva returned from his first tour of duty that the couple reconnected. By then, Maddy had graduated from Marist College with a B.A. in Communication. According to her LinkedIn page, Maddy was working in her first post-college job in Maryland at the time. The couple were married in a small ceremony in the Muldoon’s backyard in November 2013, but held a bigger wedding in May of 2015.
For the wedding, Alejandro was able to fly in his family from Spain to attend. On the couple’s WeddingWire.com page, it says that “Madelyn & Alejandro enjoy the beach, fist pumping to dance music, Shrimp & Grits, Shark Tank marathons, their new found obsession, Blitzburg Crunch ice cream every night of the week, hiking, spending time with family and friends, and traveling the world.”
3. Villanueva Went Undrafted & Opted For Becoming an Army Officer
Villanueva spent a brief time on the Bengals roster after college, but as he told NFL.com in 2014, his mind was on a different career path:
“As soon as I graduated, especially with all my classmates at West Point who were all going to serve, my mind and my heart were going to Afghanistan That’s where I wanted to be. I wanted to serve, I wanted to see combat. I was actually trying to get as many deployments as I could, and see it with different units. That’s where my mind and my heart was.”
Because of his West Point experience, Villanueva was immediately in charge of a 38-person unit upon arriving in Afghanistan. It was on his first tour, on his first mission, that Villanueva had his worst experience in Afghanistan. He was leading his men on a mission when they were ambushed, and despite best efforts, one of his soldiers was killed. Villanueva was awarded the Bronze Star for his efforts, but never fully recovered from losing fellow soldier Jesse Dietrich.
That was in 2011, during Villanueva’s first tour in Afghanistan. Upon returning he joined the Army Rangers, the elite unit of the United States Army. He went back to Afghanistan in 2012 and 2013, but because it was with the Rangers, his experiences during those years are confidential.
4. Villanueva Returned From Three Tours & Gave The NFL Another Shot
After three tours of military service, Villanueva decided to make one more attempt at the NFL in 2014. He paid $250 to enter a regional combine, and from there earned a spot at a Super Regional Combine in Detroit. In May of 2014, the Eagles offered him a small contract in the hopes he would become a 3-4 defensive end. But Villanueva was still in the Army, and had to split time between Philadelphia and his base in Georgia. It wasn’t sustainable, and Villanueva was cut in August of that year.
He had a choice. He had just been promoted to Captain, and had a chance to opt for a fourth tour of duty in September. But in the meantime, he had attracted the attention of Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. Tomlin and the Steelers had played against the Eagles in a preseason game, and something about Villanueva stuck with Tomlin:
“I looked across the field during the anthem and there’s a guy standing over there about a head taller than everybody else and saluting during the anthem,” Tomlin told reporters in 2015. “It kind of got my attention. I wanted to know about this enormous human being over there saluting.”
The Steelers signed Villanueva to the practice squad for the 2014 season, and gave him the time to adjust to private citizen and football player. He finished his military responsibilities, and was promoted to the 53-man roster before the 2015 season.
5. Villanueva Gained Nearly 100 Pounds in His Transition to Offensive Lineman
Thanks to Maddy’s cooking and lots of strength training, Villanueva’s body has completely changed. An Army Ranger and NFL player are both elite athletes, but the training is suited to different situations. Rangers need to run miles, while football players need to sprint.
Villanueva estimates that during military service, he weighed between 240 and 250 pounds. After working with Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak and eating his wife’s cooking before bed, Villanueva entered the 2015 season at 335 pounds. On the Steelers roster for 2016, Villanueva is listed at 6-foot-9 and 320 pounds.