Monday, February 22, 2016 - Updated: 6:40 am
At 6-foot-9 and 320 pounds, Alejandro Villanueva is the epitome of strength. A West Point graduate, he led an Army platoon in Afghanistan, and this past season he appeared in 16 games for the Pittsburgh Steelers, starting the last 10 of them at the important left tackle position.
But he’ll be the first to tell you that his strength and courage comes from above.
With family roots in Spain, he grew up in a home in which the faith was strong and prominent. "I didn’t know anything other than being Catholic," Villanueva noted.
But like others who reach their college years and are exposed to the world, he added, he began to step away from the faith a little. It was his military experience that brought him back.
Villanueva led a platoon of 38 soldiers in an active war zone. He was awarded a Bronze Star for rescuing wounded soldiers.
The experience of being shot at brought the importance of faith into focus, he said. Villanueva pointed out that he could rely on friends when he needed something, or look on the Internet when he needed an answer, but there was nowhere else to turn when he was fighting for his life.
"You get to that specific moment when there are bullets flying over your head and there’s nothing and no one you can turn to except for God," he said. "That’s when you open the lines of communication with him. That’s when you’re talking to him and asking him for help."
Looking back, Villanueva noted, he realizes that God has helped him through the most dangerous situations. He spoke of stepping on bombs that didn’t explode, or always being the tallest in a line of soldiers.
When he got back to the United States, Villanueva said, he realized that he was experiencing a very personal relationship with God. It was similar to the relationship he had with his own father.
But Villanueva added that he couldn’t just run to God whenever he needed something because that wasn’t a mutual relationship. It wasn’t the expectation his father had of him.
"So I started giving back," he said. "I started to understand that everything I have I owe to God."
Villanueva described his path to the NFL as being "very unlikely." The experience has taught him to remember to not give credit to himself but to other people, and especially to God. He said he carries a bag of religious objects and holy water to every game. He also makes the sign of the cross when he takes the field.
"It gets to the point I don’t think I’m doing things, I’m writing God’s will in all of this," Villanueva said.
He said it’s a "great feeling" knowing that no matter how things are going, there is the realization that God’s will is being done.
Villanueva noted that he is a very analytical person, and his business background has led him to be a careful planner. He has the same goals as others in planning for the future, he said, but he also realizes that material possessions aren’t the most important objectives.
"Where do I want to be that last hour?" is a question Villanueva often asks himself.
He wants to be the kind of person who has a great relationship with God, he said. He doesn’t want to experience the fear that he has felt. He doesn’t want to have feelings of regret and guilt. Instead, Villanueva wants to have forgiveness and be at peace.
Walking back through his life in increments of 10 years or so, Villanueva looks forward to raising his children in the faith and teaching them the same values his father taught him. He’ll take the approach that God has shaped everything in his life.
"Those decisions will have an impact on how I feel that last hour," he said.
Villanueva draws inspiration from a song about the Virgin of Carmen. He sings it to himself at games right after the National Anthem. He finds comfort in the song, and he often listens to it when he is having a bad day and wants to reflect on what is important in his life. It helps him to put things into perspective, he said, and makes him feel humble.
Villanueva said pro football players are much more spiritual than people realize. A lot of the players know, he said, that they need a lot of help in dealing with life. Pointing to the practice of players kneeling and praying together following NFL games, he recalled praying with the Denver Broncos’ DeMarcus Ware after the Steelers’ 23-16 playoff loss Jan. 17. The two players had squared off against one another during the game.
"A magnificent player, but a great role model and a great Christian," he said of Ware.
He also said the Steelers pray the Our Father before they leave the locker room at the start of each game. And they have the opportunity to attend Mass or take part in chapel services.
The "best example" is the Rooney family when it comes to the Catholic faith, he said. He pointed to simple reminders of it at the Steelers complex on Pittsburgh’s South Side and to the training camp experience at St. Vincent College in Latrobe.
As Villanueva builds his off-field life with his wife, Maddy, he looks forward to becoming more involved in Catholic activities. He laughed when recalling how Father Joe Freedy, director of the Office for Priestly Vocations, has become his "agent" in getting him to talk to young people and other groups.
Villanueva understands that it is more than his physical stature and background that impresses others, adding, "To let go and leave a lot of things up to God is one of those things that has made me stronger in the eyes of a lot of people."
Alejandro Villanueva will speak at Aquinas Academy of Pittsburgh on Feb. 25 from 7-8:15 p.m. He will talk about the importance of his Catholic faith during the challenges he has faced as an Army officer and in pursuit of his NFL dreams. His talk is free and open to the public. The school is at 2308 W. Hardies Road, Gibsonia, Pa. 15044.