They say a tie is like kissing your sister.
For Alejandro Villanueva, playing the Pittsburgh Steelers as a Baltimore Raven was like marrying her.
One day after announcing his retirement, Villanueva joined 93.7 The Fan to discuss his decision to retire and reflecting on his year with the Ravens. Which included a return trip to Pittsburgh last December.
“I didn’t think much of it at first,” he told The Fan’s Ron Cook and Joe Starkey about signing with the Steelers’ rival. “But then I have to go to Pittsburgh and I had to play in Pittsburgh. I think I was telling Garrett Giemont, the strength coach for the Steelers, who is one of the people I love the most in the world. I said, I think if that weekend, they would’ve told me that I had to marry my sister, it would’ve been a lot less weird than playing the Steelers at Heinz Field. And so it was one of those surreal experiences where a lot of things didn’t make sense.”
While Villanueva didn’t begin his improbable NFL career with the Steelers, Pittsburgh is where he found his football calling. They took him from a lanky-looking defensive lineman into a solid left tackle and fixture of the Steelers’ front five. He started six seasons in Pittsburgh, never missing a game while graduating from business school at Carnegie Mellon.
Despite the weirdness of the game, Villanueva said he had to focus and treat it like any other.
“But ultimately, you treat it like as a professional. You gotta block a guy, you got an assignment, you got a play call, you got a clock and a score and whatnot, and just treated the same.”
Pittsburgh squeaked out the win in Villanueva’s return, a 20-19 victory over the Ravens, the latest in a long list of one-possession battles between both sides. This one came down to the very end, with T.J. Watt pressuring Lamar Jackson into throwing a slightly inaccurate throw as the Ravens attempted the go-ahead two-point conversion. Villanueva’s reaction to the moment says it all.
No rivalry is more emotional than Steelers/Ravens. Final play of the game. Don't need to see the throw. Just need to see the reactions. Heyward hands in the air, Villanueva slamming his body to the ground.
— Alex Kozora (@Alex_Kozora) December 8, 2021
Villanueva is one of a handful of players with a first-hand experience of playing for both organizations. Pittsburgh and Baltimore have among the league’s best reputations for their stability and success, though Villanueva said their styles are different.
“The teams, the culture, is very interesting how both teams are not giving into each other. From my perspective in the game of football you have these divisions and usually one team does so well that all the quarterbacks and coaches get fired. But in the AFC North you had Coach Harbaugh and Coach Tomlin that had been battling against each other and not giving in. And so that’s created almost polar opposite cultures that are both very valuable. They’re both great stories, great ideologies…it was really cool to see, a team that the Steelers have a lot of respect for, how they operate and how they view the Steelers.
From a knowledge standpoint and experience standpoint, it was incredibly valuable. And I really enjoyed it except for obviously for the time that I had to go to Heinz Field. That was a pretty weird experience for sure.”
Villanueva told the show he’s down to 265 pounds and is unsure of the next steps in his post-retirement life. He’s living in South Florida near Maurkice Pouncey, and said they and David DeCastro (traveling in from Colorado) are going to go on a fishing trip later this year. Once a Steeler, always a Steeler.