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Steelers' Alejandro Villanueva still struggles adjusting to 'civilian life'

"I'm trying to have a successful transition to civilian life," Alejandro Villanueva said. "I don't think I've done it yet. It is the No. 1 biggest challenge for veterans in the United States." Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire

PITTSBURGH -- Last week, Pittsburgh Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva -- who's currently without a contract as he awaits a long-term deal -- said NFL employment can be challenging.

On Tuesday, I asked Villanueva what he meant by that comment. The Army Ranger and business student at Carnegie Mellon dove in on corporate America, military life and illusions.

"That's a very broad question. It involves a lot of things, from the CBA to the big concept of what it is to be an entertainer in the entertainment industry," said Villanueva, who hasn't signed his exclusive rights tender but is practicing with the team anyway, thanks to a waiver. "I come from an organization like the military, which only cares about the goodness and the development and the opportunities of every member. Then you come to the NFL and you have to fall into these rules, to these sort of agreements between owners and players that sometimes might seem or might appear to be unfair to certain players. Honestly, I really don't get caught up in thinking about this stuff too much. I have no control over it."

For Villanueva to assume he knows everything about NFL interworkings would be "arrogance," he said, preferring to see things from a "humble point of view." But he's thought out a few common differences between the military and the NFL.

“Ninety-nine percent of these players, their only course of action to be successful is to play football. It's very one-sided," Villanueva said. "In the military, for example, you can't do that. You put too much pressure on [someone] and they can go be cops or do something else to make more money and be more successful. That's what's happening in most corporate America [settings]. If you've applied to one job and all of a sudden that one job has a transformation or is unfavorable for a worker, he's going to do something else. In the NFL, you can't do that. We only have one National Football League. The rules of the National Football League are set in motion. But it is what it is. It's a gravitational sort of problem. You can't do anything about it. It's something maybe I identified early on, that's why I started my business degree. You try to have as many options as you can in life."

The NFL business model has caused Villanueva to feel insecure and defensive about the way he supports his family, he says. The military offers the backdrop of comfort. Want to work more or less hours? The system accommodates that, he said.

Fortunately for America, Villanueva says, the need for combat leaders started to dwindle years ago. Otherwise, Villanueva might still be in the Army. He didn't grow up dreaming about becoming an NFL player. But he played at West Point and figured he had enough athletic ability to try professional ball. He bounced around several training camps at various positions before the Steelers saw a fit at left tackle.

NFL players make a good living, but Villanueva admits transition from military to civilian life is "extremely complicated."

"It's actually the hardest thing service people do -- I'm in the same boat," Villanueva said. "I'm trying to have a successful transition to civilian life. I don't think I've done it yet. It is the No. 1 biggest challenge for veterans in the United States. You go from a completely different world to a completely different universe. ... For me to get educated is when I put all the leverage on my side.”

Asked if he dealt with post-service depression, Villanueva said staying busy staved any potential issues. Working toward his MBA has helped. In recent years, he's found himself battling naivete.

"I always have this Michael Scott mentality where I lie to myself -- I'll imagine a world, but the reality is very different," Villanueva said, referencing a principal and often naive character from the NBC sitcom The Office. "I can't really slow down, because the moment I slow down is the moment I might look back and kind of regret [things].”

If Villanueva finds NFL life challenging, why not skip workouts to illustrate the point?

"The Steelers have always treated me extremely well, from the front office to the coaches to the trainers," Villanueva said. "Every person in this building has been extremely nice to me. ... I believe the Steelers are trying to make the best decision. They are very successful in all the decisions that they've made. ... I understand I'm just a very small part in their big scheme of things. From that aspect, my biggest concern is my preparedness."

Villanueva believes he's an unfinished product at tackle and didn't play as well as he would have wanted last season. Pro Football Focus ranked Villanueva the No. 23 overall offensive tackle, but the site says early-season struggles brought the average down. Villanueva was solid in the second half of 2016.

Starting two years at a crucial position for a contender will likely result in a long-term deal.

Villanueva would rather lift and block than talk about the dynamics of his own contract.

"The business side of things is unfortunate. It's unfortunate I'm creating so much attention in a lot of areas," Villanueva said. "It's not something I really think about. Hopefully it will sort itself out. I have options, that's the good thing."