PITTSBURGH -- Despite spending five years away from football, it probably wouldn't be wise to bet against Alejandro Villanueva making it in the NFL.
Sure, Villanueva is only on the Pittsburgh Steelers practice squad right now, but his past accomplishments indicate that he has succeeded in tougher situations.
Villanueva, you see, distinguished himself while leading a platoon as a U.S. Army Ranger in Afghanistan. So, learning how to play offensive tackle at 26 years old should be a breeze by comparison. To commemorate his service, the Steelers are taking Villanueva on the short road trip to Tennessee.
The Steelers (6-4) face the Tennessee Titans (2-7) Monday at 8:30 p.m. at LP Field in Nashville, Tenn.
"We acknowledged him (Monday) in our team meeting,'' Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "We will honor him not only today but all week."
"We will bring him with us to Tennessee when we play this game just as a sign or token of our appreciation for not only the sacrifice that he has made but all the servicemen and women in the history of our country."
"It's truly a humbling thing, and it's great to have him be a part of us,'' Tomlin added. "And if it makes it more personal in terms of understanding that sacrifice, then what a great opportunity. We look forward to having fun with him this week.''
Villaneuva's teammates marvel at his development already as a player and the military experiences that he has shared with them.
"I don't think we've been in a situation like this where a guy that we know personally on this team has been a part of the services,'' offensive guard Ramon Foster said. "He's been a Ranger, and we're very proud to have him on our team."
"To hear him talk about some of the experiences that he's been through, lets you know a perspective about how tough of a guy he is. (And) he's a guy who we're going to work with a whole lot to be a player, and I think he can be a player.''
For more than eight years, Villanueva has been surrounded by people in uniform, so Veterans Day hasn't necessarily meant a lot to him in the past. However, with the emphasis the Steelers have placed on him, his service and his place on the team, the meaning has changed somewhat.
"I've been deployed and celebrated Christmases overseas ... so, everything starts to lose their value,'' Villanueva said. "(But) now, I can look back on my teammates on the football team at Army and everybody that I served with and kind of give them thanks for what they're doing now. But for me, I never really expected anything.''
Villanueva won't be active for the game, but he's hopeful that his game will continue to improve to where he'll eventually be an active player.
"I love playing O-line, especially with my teammates, with the great group of guys that we have and Coach Munchak,'' Villanueva said. "So, for me, it's a great opportunity to be on the O-line. Catching the football is really fun, and that's what I did in college. But I think this is my position (offensive tackle), and this is where I belong. And this is where I'm going to develop my game.''
The Steelers signed the 6-foot-9, 277-pound Villanueva after he was released as a defensive end by the Philadelphia Eagles in the preseason. And he came to the club with an open mind.
"My expectations were pretty low in terms of what they expect from me,'' Villanueva said. "But if I continue to work really hard, then the expectations will grow as we go into next season. I honestly feel confident that I can do it, but there's a lot of factors involved in football with what's going to happen at the end of the day. But I'm going to keep working hard and try to get over the top.''
With his track record, expectations are high that Villanueva will succeed.
Notes: Since the Steelers get an extra practice day on Saturday, there was no official practice report Wednesday.