You'd be hard-pressed to find an NFL player with a more unlikely path to the pros than Steelers offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva.
Villanueva had his final year of college football in 2009 at Army, when he caught 34 passes for 552 yards and five touchdowns as a wide receiver. The 6'9", 290-pound standout began his college career as a defensive lineman before moving to left tackle in 2008, when he started 12 games as a junior.
Villanueva graduated from The United States Military Academy at West Point in 2010, and the Bengals gave him a brief shot at tight end during the spring before moving on. Villanueva would spend the next four years defending his country in the U.S. Army. That included three tours in Afghanistan as an Army Ranger where he earned many honors, including the Bronze Star Medal for Valor, the Ranger Tab, the Parachutist Badge, the Bronze Star Medal for overseas service, Afghanistan Campaign Medal with Campaign Star, Global War on Terrorism Service Ribbon, and Expert Infantryman's Badge.
But even through all of that, Villanueva still had the desire to come back to the NFL. In April 2014, he took part in NFL's Super Regional Combine, along with 240 other hopefuls. A month later, he signed with the Eagles as a defensive lineman.
The Eagles would ultimately cut him before he found his way to Pittsburgh, where he made the switch to offensive tackle in hopes of one final NFL shot. He ended up making Pittsburgh's final roster in 2014, and is now their starting left tackle heading into Sunday's big clash with the Bengals.
To this day, Villanueva is still grateful for the Bengals giving him a brief shot in the NFL before he went on to serve in the Army.
"Honestly, the fact someone in the building in Cincinnati thought that I could play in the NFL means I’m playing today,"Villanueva told Bengals.com. "It means I had enough courage to pursue a career in the NFL. Whoever it was in that building, I owe them everything I am now."
Heck, Villanueva has nothing but 'nice' things to say about the very team he'll face this Sunday.
"To be honest with you, the entire Bengals team is the nicest team we face all year," Villanueva says. "It kills the media story. If I told the ESPN reporter, they wouldn’t want to hear it. It’s not going to sell.
"From the guys I interact with all the time, the Bengals are probably the classiest and the nicest. And also the best front seven that we face. Not just in the AFC North, but in the NFL as well."
Specifically, Villanueva singled out Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson as one of the nicest guys on the Bengals' roster.
"Michael Johnson is an unbelievable guy. I’ve never had a guy hit me and apologize. ‘Hey man, sorry for that hit.’ A class act. The things he does with the troops and the stuff with his foundation is unbelievable. Every time I do an event with the NFL, they always tell me that Michael Johnson was here the week before and he was awesome with the kids. And he’s respectful on the field."
And there are plenty other Bengals that Villanueva is fond of.
"(Domata) Peko is the nicest guy. Carlos Dunlap is best friends with two of our guys from Florida. He’s a very respectful guy. Geno Atkins is a quiet professional. He’s a great, awesome player, but he never stirs trouble. He never says anything to you … (Steelers right guard) David DeCastro and I were just talking about how great of a player he is …
"The linebackers, (Rey) Maualuga, he’s a widowmaker, but at the same time, he’s the nicest guy. So is Vincent Rey."
While that seems like an odd thing to say for anyone involved in the Bengals-Steelers rivalry, Villanueva is spot on. Every offseason, all we hear about is how various Bengals are serving in the community, whether it's in Cincinnati or their hometowns. It's great to see someone on the other side of this rivalry acknowledging that, even if 'nice' will be the furthest thing we see at Heinz Field on Sunday.
Still, it feels like Villanueva was really interested in emphasizing the 'niceness' of this Bengals team.