A nice story this weekend out of Cincinnati, where Army senior wide receiver Alejandro Villanueva attended the Bengals’ rookie camp and made a huge impression on the organization.
Villanueva, however, will not be joining the Bengals anytime soon. Not only is he due to serve at least two years in the Army, but he made it clear that, football aside, serving is his goal regardless.
“I have a great respect for the commitment he’s made to our country, knowing that he’s going to lead his men and he’ll do a great job,” Bengals tight end coach Jonathan Hayes told the Times Herald-Record. “Just by knowing him for the four days I was around him, you can see why the young men that come out of the academies are so special.”
The Record has a nice write up of Villanueva’s experience, and the Bengals posted their own patriotic version of the weekend. The Record’s Sal Interdonato has a few blog posts about the camp tryout as well, although I can’t give him much credit for breaking the news on this — some random guy posted a link to the story in a comment on Sal’s own blog.
“I felt loved by the organization, which meant a lot to me,” Villanueva told the paper. “I was surprised by how kind and how interested they were in my service and what I was doing.”
What is he doing? Graduating on May 22 in a ceremony led by President Barack Obama. Then, Villanueva is reportedly off to Ranger school. He’s due to join the 10th Mountain Division, which is the Army’s only unit designed for fighting under harsh terrain and weather conditions — think Afghanistan, not suburban Ohio.
“That’s why I went to West Point,” Villanueva told Bengals.com’s Geoff Hobson. “To serve my country. To protect freedom. I don’t regret that I could have gone to a civilian school. I’m proud and happy with the choice that I made.”
Villanueva, 6-foot-10 and 285 lbs, said he was recruited out of high school by some Big Ten schools, including Boston College. He’d only played football, in a limited role, for two years before joining West Point.
“You can just sense the kid has ‘it,'” Hayes said. “The ‘it’ I’m talking about is that he will be great at whatever he decides to do in life.”
Of course, football fans, especially those of Army, have to wonder what kind of force a guy like Ali would be in the NFL. Having a huge, powerful tight end with great hands and blocking skills, you’d have to expect he would have gotten more interest this spring from teams had he not been committed to service. And ironically, the Bengals could have used a good guy like Villanueva — that organization hasn’t exactly been on it’s best behavior the last few years.
“I don’t want people to think I’m going to be with the 10th Mountain Division but thinking in the back of my head, ‘this is temporary. I need to get out of this,'” Villanueva said. “I’m fully committed to the Army. That’s my job right now. Still, a lot of people here have the perception that I’m trying to keep that gate open and coast through these two years as fast as possible so I can go out there and give it another shot. Right now, the 10th Mountain Division owns me.”
Sal’s blog has some good insight from Villanueva on the experience, including his thoughts about going into the minicamp with Ft. Benning on the radar:
“I sort of went in there a little handicap because I knew I wasn’t going to get anything out of it in terms of a contract. It was an odd situation for me. But it was fun being out there with the players and playing football again was something I definitely wasn’t going to say no to.”
-Ali Villanueva on Bengals minicamp
He also admitted that when he showed up at Michie Stadium four years ago, he wasn’t really sure “how to play football.” A few years later, he led the Black Knights in receiving and earned enough interest to play infront of an NFL coaching staff. “I think I did the best of what they asked me to do,” he said of the camp.
“I came in not knowing how to play football [at West Point,]” Villanueva said. “I switched positions a couple times, I finally got to the top level even though I was never a wide receiver and I never had a season to build upon. That was my biggest handicap. When I played tackle, I played tackle. I never thought about playing wide receiver or tight end. I think I did my job. I got here (to the NFL).”
And now the job changes. Ft. Benning, followed by Ft.
Drum, and then, most likely, “somewhere near Pakistan,” as they say.
“I don’t want to close any doors,” Villanueva told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “I want to compete as long as I can, to show the coaches I care, that I’m disciplined, and that after I do my duty overseas, that I can come back and play the game.”
“I think I could play at the next level,” Villanueva added. “That’s what I’m getting out of it. Whether it works out in the future or not, is not really something I can lose sleep on.”
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Some previous posts I’ve made about Villanueva: