NFL Soldier Stands Tall in the Catholic Church

Pittsburgh Steelers’ Alejandro Villanueva relies on faith in military and pro sports.

Alejandro Villanueva
Alejandro Villanueva (photo: Pittsburgh Steelers/Karl Roser)

When the annual NFL Draft took place April 30-May 2, many former and current professional players could look back and remember in which round they were chosen. Some players, however, were never drafted, but persevered and found their way onto the active roster of a team.

Alejandro Villanueva is hoping to be one of these men by building on his practice-squad experience with the Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers. At 6 feet 9 inches tall, the 330-pound offensive lineman and tight end wants to be a part of the 2015 Steelers’ 53-man roster and plans to use his experience in the Army to make this happen.

Villanueva, whose father is a Spanish naval officer who worked for NATO, was born at Naval Air Station Meridian in Mississippi in 1988. After spending most of his childhood in Spain, Villanueva returned with his parents and three younger siblings to the United States in 2001.

Graduation from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 2010 was followed by three tours of duty in Afghanistan. During his first tour, Villanueva aided wounded soldiers amid enemy fire, a heroic deed that was later recognized by his being awarded a Bronze Star for valor.  

Villanueva spoke of his military adventures and professional football hopes through the perspective of his Catholic faith, in time for Memorial Day, on May 25.


The NFL Draft was recently held in Chicago. What do you think of this year’s picks, and what do you think of the draft in general?

It’s always tough to say how well college players are going to do in the NFL, regardless of which round they’re chosen in. You can be a first-rounder with lots of expectations and lots of money, but those two things might work against you. You can be taken in later rounds (or not even drafted at all, as in my case) with little expectations and little money, but those can work for you. You’re never really sure how guys will do until they’re actually playing against other professionals.

I used to think of the draft as having a mystical quality about it — that if you were chosen in the first round, it meant infallibly that you would be a great player in the NFL. Since I’ve been around pro-football players for a while now, I’ve come to realize that things aren’t that simple. The people who decide which players to choose are just as capable of making mistakes as a player is on the field. We all mess up at times, and choosing which guys are best for your team is no different.


You’re currently part of the practice squad for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Are you planning on making the 53-man roster for next season?

That’s the goal. Being on the practice squad basically means you’re one of 10 guys who increase the number of players on the practice field and at the same time get a chance to develop your own skills. This is done with the hope of presenting yourself to the coaches as a possible option for players on the 53-man roster who get injured.

Being part of the 53-man roster can seem like an impenetrable barrier at times, but a key to getting over the barrier is to think in terms of being there already. You think of what’s required of someone on the 53-man roster, and you live out that role before it actually happens. That means you put yourself in a position to succeed.


Did you learn anything in the Army that you use in football?

The No. 1 thing I learned from the Army was how to deal with different people — how to read their emotions and understand where they’re coming from; how to work together with them; how to lead in important undertakings; and how to forgive. The Army provided me with a very diverse set of experiences that challenged me and helped me to learn and grow as a man and a citizen of the United States. These things can be used in football and in any other area of life.


What do you think civilians need to know about soldiers before observing the upcoming Memorial Day holiday?

Civilians need to understand — which I think they are, in growing numbers — that the military is there to serve them. In the military, we work for the people of the United States. Our actions are not just part of the agenda of individuals or even of the military as a whole. What drives us is our interest in the good of the country. The entire purpose of the U.S. military is to protect the American people.


Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has become an increasingly popular topic of discussion. What are your thoughts on it?

There are two extremes in this topic. One is when someone who hasn’t seen active duty says he’s suffering from PTSD whenever he hears the hum of a helicopter. He claims this in order to get insurance or other benefits. The other extreme is when someone really does have a serious problem dealing with the horrors of war, which he actually was a part of, up close.

I think most people, including myself, fall between these two extremes: We have encountered awful things in war, to be sure, but we work through them and — by the grace of God — overcome them.


How has Catholicism helped you to overcome the horrors of war?

Even though I was born in Mississippi, I spent most of my childhood in Spain, a mostly Catholic country. Religious beliefs permeate the culture there in many ways, even to the point that you don’t really appreciate them; you simply take them for granted. That’s what I did as a child, and that mindset continued when my family came back to the U.S. in 2001.

However, when you’re shipped off to war (as I first was in 2011), you have to find a way to deal with the inevitable fear that comes into your heart. There are so many uncertainties about what lies ahead that you have to get support from somewhere, and the best place to find that support is in the Catholic Church.


What do you find most comforting about the Church?

Religion is a deeply personal relationship with God, so that’s what I find the most comfort in. Despite all the other things that may be going on outside of you, what goes to the very core of your being is what you do in terms of religion. If you’re right with God, everything else is fine; if you’re not right with God, everything else is out of place. Being connected with God is the most important thing there is.

Even though the community aspect of church is a good thing, if you aren’t praying and keeping the Ten Commandments, your neighbor becomes a means of distraction and covering up your lack of connection to God. I believe this so much that I even enjoy attending weekday Mass more than Sunday Mass, because weekday Mass is more conducive to prayer.

It’s sad to say, but there can be so many things about Sunday Mass that distract you from praying. There can be loud music, people talking like they’re in a restaurant or dressed like they’re going to the beach. Weekday Mass is much quieter, which makes prayer so much easier. Then you see what is wrong with your soul, and you’re motivated to do something about — namely, go to confession.


Do you find comfort in confession as well?

Yes, confession is an important part of religion — or our relationship with God. When we pray, we see how we’ve fallen short of what God wants from us, and the next step is to ask to be forgiven. This is what plays out in the sacrament of confession: It’s the Prodigal Son returning to his loving Father, who knows his weakness and is more than ready to welcome him back home.

This brings up another favorite aspect of the Catholic Church: its purity of doctrine. We have the teachings and sacraments that Jesus gave us. We have preserved them and passed them down through the generations so that, even today, the Church is essentially the same as it was in St. Peter’s time. St. Peter and the other apostles preached the Good News, baptized, celebrated the Eucharist and confession — basically living out Jesus’ command in Matthew 28, which shows how Jesus is with us today as much as he was 2,000 years ago.

I also like how the Church has done so many charitable things over the years, such as founding schools, hospitals, orphanages and homeless shelters. All of these things initially arose from religious motives, but the Church has had such an influence, even on secular cultures, that many of its institutions are seen as a matter of course for any civilized society.

People forget, or maybe never knew, that the Catholic Church is a great help to mankind, even from a material point of view. Reading [Thomas Woods’] How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization or other books that portray the history of the Church accurately would help us to keep this in mind. Then we can stand tall and build on the great things already in our Church, which will then renew society.

Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.