Postindustrial, Alejandro Villanueva would like to discuss geopolitics. by Carmen Gentile PhotoGreg Trott via Associated Press

Alejandro Villanueva playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers

June 9, 2019

Alejandro Villanueva would like to discuss geopolitics

The Spanish Steelers star is not a typical offensive tackle

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BY Carmen Gentile // PHOTO BY Greg Trott via Associated Press

Ever wonder what it’s like to be invisible?

Try spending an afternoon in the company of Steelers star and former Army Ranger Alejandro Villanueva. You’ll quickly find out.

We met for lunch a while back at a popular Argentine restaurant in Pittsburgh, where patrons and staff took immediate notice of the 6-foot-9, 320-pound left tackle.

Even more impressive than his size are Villanueva’s deeds on the battlefield and gridiron, making him something of a modern-day Paul Bunyan.

While standing next to the massive and exalted Villanueva, my hair could have caught fire, and nary a mesmerized onlooker would have noticed.

Even the most casual of football fans know his story: After serving his country in combat in Afghanistan, Villanueva landed a spot on the Steelers squad at left tackle back in 2014. His is perhaps the most critical position on the offensive line, given that Villanueva’s job is to protect the quarterback’s blind side from sack-hungry defensive players.

Since then, he has become arguably the most beloved player in a town known for the fickleness of its football fans (ask Terry Bradshaw why he rarely visits Pittsburgh).

However, there is more to Villanueva than just his military service and stellar football career.

While standing next to the massive and exalted Villanueva, my hair could have caught fire, and nary a mesmerized onlooker would have noticed.

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Photos by Carmen Gentile

Photos by Carmen Gentile

During a recent interview with Postindustrial Audio’s “Truth About War” podcast, Villanueva talked about growing up overseas and “watching the United States” from afar as the only American citizen in his family.

As such, his origin story is unlike most others in professional football. Though the 30-year-old Villanueva was born in the United States, he spent most of his childhood living on military bases in Europe, where his father was an aviator with the Spanish Navy and worked for NATO.

His three siblings, as well as his parents, were born overseas, making him the only U.S. citizen in his immediate family. “I grew up watching the United States from afar,” said Villanueva, who’s a father himself: He and his wife, Madelyn Muldoon, gave birth to a son in 2016.

Villanueva talked about a childhood spent living in strategic parts of the continent, revealing a nuanced understanding of geopolitics and history one might not expect from a mountainous individual who makes a living casting aside other behemoths.

He expressed thoughtful, personal perspectives on topics like the September 11 attacks and appreciation of military history dating back to World War II.

“ROTA Naval Station, which is the base I grew up in … it’s a very key terrain feature because it  essentially shuts down the Mediterranean and the Russians don’t have a lot of fresh-water access ports,” Villanueva said about the base near the Straits of Gibraltar in southern Spain. (Why were we discussing this particular area of the world? For that, you’ll have to listen to the podcast.)

He also spoke of his time studying at the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he was a standout football player who simultaneously prepared for his military duties in the Global War On Terrorism.

“When you go to West Point, you know you are going to be at the front lines,” he said, speaking of his dual roles at the academy, and how the military duty carried with it life-or-death consequences for himself and the soldiers he led in Afghanistan.

His time at the front lines in Afghanistan remains at the forefront of his mind, even when he’s taking the field on a Sunday. On game days, Villanueva wears a shirt under his football pads with the names of fellow soldiers who perished while fighting in Afghanistan.

Despite his much-celebrated military and NFL careers, Villanueva insisted there is much more to him than being a soldier and a football player.

“It can’t define me,” he said. “I’m also a human being. I’m also a father.”

Visit our “Truth About War” page to listen to the full interview with Villanueva and other fascinating guests discussing their experiences on the front lines of war, international diplomacy, and much more.

Carmen Gentile

Carmen Gentile has worked for The New York Times and CBS News, among others. His book, "Blindsided by the Taliban," documents his life as a war reporter and the aftermath of his brush with death after being shot with a rocket-propelled grenade while embedded with U.S. Army forces in Afghanistan.

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