The Philadelphia Eagles signed 6-foot-9, 277-pound defensive lineman Alejandro Villanueva to a rookie free agent contract on Monday.
But Villanueva is no ordinary rookie free agent.
Villanueva spent the past four years as an active member of the U.S. Army, serving a total of three tours in Afghanistan. Most recently he served as a U.S. Army Ranger and was promoted to captain.
It's hard to project what Villanueva's role will be with the Eagles, but it's a story worth watching.
"This opportunity, obviously it's something I've worked pretty hard for," Villanueva told Philadelphiaeagles.com. "Going through the regional and super regional combine ... has been truly a blessing. To get a look from the Eagles and be invited to come here and a work out and ultimately be able to sign, I'm very blessed and feel very fortunate for this opportunity. I don't want to disappoint anybody and will work as hard as I can and give it my best shot."
The Eagles watched the 25-year-old Villanueva perform at the super regional combine in Detroit this offseason from April 12-13. He last played football in 2009 for Army as a wide receiver after converting to that position prior to his senior season. In that season, Villanueva served as the Black Knights offensive captain and led the team in receptions (34), yards (522) and touchdowns (five). He originally began his career at Army seeing action as a reserve defensive lineman from 2006-07 before making the transition to left tackle in ‘08, starting all 12 games at that position in his junior season.
"I went (to the regional combine) without an agent," Villanueva told Philadelphiaeagles.com. "It was a situation where I got back from my deployment and had this opportunity come up. I wasn't really in shape, to be honest, but I thought there was maybe potential to get me to the super regional and buy a little more time to work out. Once I completed the regional in Atlanta, I was invited to the super regional, where I was able to perform in front of NFL scouts, and that's when the Eagles took a look at me. One of their scouts was sent out there, all 32 teams had scouts there, looking for one or two guys who might bring something to a team. I had a lot of phone calls from team (after the super regional), asking me about my ability to get out of the army and play football. I didn't really keep track of which teams called, but the Eagles showed the most interest and that's ultimately why I ended up here."
Villanueva has earned a number of honors for his service, including the Bronze Star Medal for Valor, the Ranger Tab, the Parachutist Badge, the Bronze Star Medal for overseas service, National Defense Service Medal, Afghanistan Campaign Medal with Campaign Star, Global War on Terrorism Service Ribbon, Army Service Ribbon, Overseas Service Ribbon, NATO Medal, Combat Infantryman's Badge and Expert Infantryman's Badge.
"The best memories were the time I spent with my soldiers and my men," Villanueva told Philadelphiaeagles.com. "There were a lot of guys that I met, a lot of guys that I served with. I think my most fun memory was playing football in the HLZ (Helicopter Landing Zone) that we had on (the base in Afghanistan). It's something that I looked at and would describe it as the most fun football that I've ever played. We played touch but tackle in the last quarter if things got pretty intense and it was a tie game, that's when we'd bring guys down to the ground."