The Pittsburgh Steelers have a pretty established connection and history with honoring the armed services. It always helps when you have people who serve as a literal connection, as Rocky Bleier and others, most recently Alejandro Villanueva, have done.
In honor of Memorial Day, the league’s website revisited some of the greatest contributions made to the game among those who served yesterday, recognizing the ‘top 11 all-time NFL players from service academies’, a list put together by Chase Goodbread.
The Steelers’ Villanueva was placed eighth on the list, and is one of only three players on the list who participated in the NFL since the 1990s.
A 2010 West Point graduate, Villanueva had the remarkable distinction of making a position switch from offensive line to wide receiver at the college level. He started at left tackle for the Black Knights as a junior, but led the team in every receiving category (34-522-5) a year later at 6-foot-10, 283 pounds. The Bengals decided not to sign him after trying him out at tight end in 2010, and he then embarked upon a decorated service career that included three tours of duty in Afghanistan and a pair of Bronze Star Medals. As a pro football player, he’s developed from a practice squad player to two-time Pro Bowler over the course of five seasons, and has started 58 consecutive games for the Steelers over the last three seasons. Last year, the Steelers put his receiving skills back on display as he caught a TD pass on a fake field goal against the Denver Broncos.
Other than adding an extra inch to his height, that’s a pretty good summation of Villanueva’s background, though it also leaves out the fact that he was actually working as a defensive end when the Steelers actually signed him to their practice squad in 2014.
From what I gather, the list seems to be based purely on a player’s NFL contributions. In other words, it’s not really about what they might have done in the military. You might notice that Pat Tillman, for example, wasn’t included on the list. He played four seasons at Arizona State, starting for most of that time, but wasn’t necessarily a distinguished player.
The lead name on the list, as should be no surprise, was Roger Staubach, but you get some other good names that you might not hear too often like Ed Sprinkle, a defensive end for the Chicago Bears in the 40s and 50s.
Though we’re getting to it a day late, it’s a list worth exploring to peruse the names. Villanueva is certainly the most prominent and visible current attachment between the NFL and the armed services, but he is far from the only one who has lived both lives. After all, the branches have their own football teams.