Alejandro Villanueva was a journeyman long before he ever came to the Pittsburgh Steelers. He had never even been on a practice squad at that point, yet he tried out for multiple teams, and was on offseason rosters, at a variety of positions, across a number of years that were broken up by tours of active duty in the Army Rangers.
But once he got to Pittsburgh, he found a home, and made it such. He spent seven years with the Steelers, including the 2014 season on the practice squad, learning the tackle position at the NFL level from Mike Munchak, and he would take over the left tackle spot six games into the following season.
Villanueva went on to make the Pro Bowl twice and became respected at this position. But now he’s blocking for Lamar Jackson with the Baltimore Ravens, and he’ll be back in Pittsburgh for the very first time since leaving the Steelers, on Sunday. How will he feel about that?
“We’ll see when I cross that bridge”, he said, though he didn’t name which of the many bridges in Pittsburgh that might be. “But there is truly an emotional component of going back to Pittsburgh. It’s a city that I’ve lived the longest in my life; I had all four of my kids there; I went to school in Pittsburgh. I think Carnegie Mellon [University] was one of the biggest influences in my life”.
Speaking of Carnegie Mellon, Villanueva earned a degree while with the Steelers. Many thought that he might walk away after this season and simply go into business for himself, where he could possibly make even more money than he had as a player.
But he obviously still has a love for the game, even if he is a person who has always set himself up to thrive no matter what hand he’s dealt. He’s not playing because there’s nothing else he can do, or knows how to do. He’s never been so one-dimensional. This is about passion. And as much as he talked about football being auto-pilot emotionally, even he can’t separate his feelings for what the city and the team has meant to his life. Yet he also appreciates what he’s experienced in Baltimore.
“Obviously, I’ve spent a lot more time with Coach [Mike] Tomlin. He’s like a father figure to me. I miss speaking like him, because I used to listen to him talk all the time, and he’s an amazing speaker, and I would talk to my kids and sound just like Coach Tomlin”, he joked.
“But now, it’s really interesting to see Coach [John] Harbaugh, and how he’s countered the Steelers and that culture to remain a very good team in the AFC and in the AFC North. So, amazing experience, but I cannot say any further than that”.
He also added that he couldn’t say more than that, especially this week, about how the cultures might differ, in part because he doesn’t want anything to be taken out of context—“maybe not here, but definitely in the other city”. Let’s just say he’s had his share of experiences with the fans and media in Pittsburgh and learned to be more selective with what he says. Including comments that he made in his first press conference as a Raven.