Army Ranger packs on 90 pounds chasing an NFL dream

Alejandro Villanueva, pictured here from his time in the Army and now with the Pittsburgh Steelers, has gained 85 pounds since his time as a platoon leader. Specialist Marco Ruiz, Pittsburgh Steelers/Karl Roser

The text came just after noon.

We have a late practice today and I think we get done at 1930, could I call you then or would that be too late?

You can take the man out of the military -- and improbably put him inside the locker room of one of the NFL's most storied franchises -- but not the military out of the man. To Alejandro Villanueva, a West Point graduate and former Army Ranger who served three tours in Afghanistan, 7:30 p.m. will always be 1930, military time.

"That's him," said Mike Munchak, the Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive line coach and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "You'd love to have 50 guys like him."

By next month, Villanueva hopes to be one of Pittsburgh's final 53. To hear those inside the Steelers' organization tell it, the 26-year-old has a legitimate shot at making the opening-day roster despite not having played in a football game since 2009, his senior year at Army.

Back then, he was a 6-foot-9 wide receiver, having played both tight end and offensive line earlier in his Army career. Now, after leaving active military duty -- during which he weighed between 245 and 250 pounds, down from what he called his natural weight of 290 pounds -- and spending the 2014 season on the Steelers' practice squad, Villanueva is a mountainous, 335-pound offensive tackle. He gained weight by working out and eating whatever his wife, Maddy, would fix him before he went to bed.

"I feel skinny right now," said Villanueva, who has lost seven pounds since training camp opened last month.

Early last year, after completing his third tour as a platoon leader in Afghanistan, Villanueva was training for a marathon in Savannah, Georgia, where he was based, when he decided he wanted to pursue his dream of playing in the NFL. After gaining 15 pounds, he went to a regional combine in suburban Atlanta and then the super regional combine in Detroit. In May, he signed with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Villanueva spent nearly four months with the Eagles, using leave time from the military to attend offseason workouts, minicamp and training camp.

The Eagles envisioned Villanueva as a 3-4 defensive end. It was, as Villanueva said, a less than ideal situation. While trying to learn a position he had never played and transition out of the military, he still had responsibilities with the Rangers that required him to commute to Savannah.

Philadelphia cut Villanueva on Aug. 23, 2014. After he spent a week in limbo, Pittsburgh signed Villanueva to its practice squad, and he officially became a civilian.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin had noticed Villanueva during Pittsburgh's preseason game against the Eagles. It's hard not to. Tomlin told Villanueva he wanted to give him "football stability." That meant an opportunity to learn his position and the NFL game while building his body with no expectations other than Villanueva would work hard and do his best.

"That was as good of a chance as I'd get," Villanueva said. "For that, I was extremely thankful."

Even so, Villanueva worried constantly that he'd get cut. It is the nature of the business. He was so diligent about his training, Munchak said, that he asked if he could work out in the weight room every morning at 5. The Steelers had to tell him no, because they didn't have a strength coach in the building that early.

"He's one of those guys, he's used to getting up at that hour and cranking," Munchak said. "So he's adjusting to the hours of the NFL, which for most are tedious and very long. For him, it's not enough. He's one of those rare guys because of the training in his background."

Villanueva didn't get cut last year, and in January he signed a reserve/futures contract with the Steelers. He was frustrated during the offseason by the collective bargaining agreement's rules governing offseason workouts. He wanted to work more, not less.

But Villanueva did what he could, including applying to Carnegie Mellon's business school, where he was accepted and likely will start in some capacity this fall.

Things with the Steelers have changed now. There are expectations for Villanueva. In the Hall of Fame game against Minnesota on Aug. 9, Villanueva played 40 snaps, including one on special teams. Although all five starters on the offensive line are back this year, Villanueva is trying to make the team as a backup swing tackle. Munchak said he also could play some tight end and on special teams.

While Villanueva's preseason snaps will likely diminish, the Steelers are intent on getting a good look at a man who started as a project and blossomed into a potential contributor.

"I'm excited for him," Munchak said. "We all are. Obviously everyone roots for a guy like him. He looks for no excuses. He makes none. He's accountable immediately. We'll see how he progresses and how he applies the technique to the game and just how long the process takes. This next month will be very important to him."

Pittsburgh could opt to put Villanueva on the practice squad again. If it does, Villanueva will have a decision to make.

"I know the Steelers are running a business, and in that business they have to utilize people's lives and time," Villanueva said. "I understand I have a timeline of what I want to do in my life. Football [is my] No. 1 priority, but if it's not playing and contributing to the team, I honestly don't know. I don't want my profession to be a practice squad player. I have a lot to offer in other areas. It would be a tough decision."

Grad school is an option. So is returning to the military. As Villanueva said, he liked leading men into battle. He gave that up to pursue a dream.

"Has it been worth it? That's a very tough question," Villanueva said. "I don't know what my life in the Army would've been like, a new opportunity in the Rangers. It's tough to go back to Savannah in the offseason and talk to my guys about a mission they did when they were deployed, and I wasn't there. Classmates from West Point continue to do their service.

"I think you slowly get over it. You always want to make sure you've given your all for your nation. In terms of me putting effort into something and it come to fruition, it's been a good experience. I do like the challenges. It was worth it to get to know the Steelers, the players, learn a lot from coaches, learn about leadership from Coach Tomlin and Coach Munchak. I enjoy the wisdom and the leadership lessons I get from them every day. At the end of the day, the teammates and the coaches have made it worth it."

The end of a typical day for Villanueva: 2230, military time, or 10:30 p.m. to you and me.