Military man Villanueva chasing NFL dream
By: Larry Mayer | Last Updated: 5/14/2012 9:15 AM
Ali Villanueva is 6-foot-10, but that’s not the only reason he stood out at the Bears rookie minicamp.
While all of the other prospects spent the last year playing college football, Villanueva was serving a 12-month tour as a U.S. Army infantry platoon leader on the front lines in the War in Afghanistan.
“Being an infantry man is a true leadership challenge and by far the best thing in the world even though you have to make really tough decisions and you face danger and you suffer losses,” said Villanueva, a tight end who participated in the rookie minicamp on a tryout basis.
“It was a test as a leader, but it was also a great experience going through challenges with a group of men who were willing to follow you and fight and do anything the nation asks them to do.”
Even without the combat experience, Villanueva traveled the most unique route of any player at minicamp. He was born in Mississippi, but grew up mostly in Spain and Belgium while his father served in the Navy. He was a competitive swimmer before becoming an accomplished rugby player, and didn’t play football until his junior year at SHAPE American High School in Belgium.
Although Villanueva was offered a college scholarship to play rugby in Spain, he opted instead to head back to the United States and enroll at West Point.
“I wanted to serve,” Villanueva said. “I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself, and the military is a great organization. I cannot say enough good things about the military. At the same time I wanted to receive a good education, and West Point offered all those things.”
It also offered Villanueva an opportunity to play Division I football. He arrived at Army as a defensive end, but was moved to offensive line a year later. After starting 12 games at left tackle as a junior, he was shifted to a position he never dreamed he’d play the following season.
Looking to take advantage of Villanueva’s height and athleticism, first-year coach Rich Ellerson converted him into college football’s tallest wide receiver. Villanueva responded by leading Army in all receiving categories as a senior in 2009 with 34 receptions for 522 yards and five touchdowns.
Two and a half years later, Villanueva feels that his best chance to earn a spot on an NFL roster or practice squad is at tight end.
“I’m very rusty in my skills, but I think tight end is the best fit for me because I’m so tall and I can block,” he said. “I have the tackle background to block and the receiving skills from wide receiver, so it’s a good combination.”
While Villanueva may face an uphill battle in his quest to become a pro football player, it’s a walk in the park compared to what he encountered in Afghanistan from March 2011-March 2012. The 23-year-old said that one soldier under his command died in combat and several others were injured.
“We saw a fair amount of combat,” Villanueva said. “The brigade took heavy losses. We were in the most kinetic district of Afghanistan, so we saw quite a bit of bullets out there.
“In some ways it shifts your mentality to where you’re like 95 years old and you’ve seen everything. It makes you appreciate things a lot more.”
One thing Villanueva certainly appreciated was the chance the Bears gave him to impress coaches during the rookie minicamp Friday through Sunday at Halas Hall.
“I like to compete a lot,” he said after one of the practices. “It’s one of the things that I’ve always wanted to do, compete at the highest level that I can. I’m 6-10, 290 pounds. It’s hard to look myself in the mirror and not ask why I’m not playing football.
“Winning is very important to me. Winning football games and winning in front of a crowd and inspiring the fans is something that everybody loves and has been a dream of mine since I was a little kid.”
Army's Villanueva chasing NFL dream