After his first career NFL start took a turn for the worse last Sunday,  Pittsburgh Steelers offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva stood up like a man and said, basically, “My fault.”

In the second half of the Steelers’ 23-13 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, Villanueva was at fault for two sacks of Pittsburgh quarterback Landry Jones. The second sack occurred on what would be the Steelers’ final offensive play of the game. With 2:11 remaining and the Steelers driving, Kansas City linebacker Tamba Hali beat Villanueva to the outside and strip sacked Jones.

“When the game is on the line, and you give up a sack on a drive you can win the game, it is a pretty terrible feeling,” Villanueva said. “I have to play better and understand the team relies on me when it matters the most, and I didn’t do that.”

It came as no surprise to his teammates, or to anyone who’s followed Villanueva’s unique career path that the 6-9, 320-pound lineman was a stand-up guy post-game. If you’re unfamiliar with Villanueva’s story, here are the bullet points.

  • Graduated from West Point, where he was mostly a tight end and wide receiver, in 2010.
  • Served three tours in Afghanistan as an Army platoon leader.
  • Began working out with the Eagles in 2014 while taking leave from the Army.
  • Signed with the Eagles but got cut.
  • Gained 90 pounds, got a tryout with the Steelers as he entered civilian life.
  • Made the team.
  • Got his first start last week, at the age of 27, replacing the injured Kelvin Beachum.

Alejandro VillanuevaTo fill in a few of the blanks, the story goes like this:

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin noticed Villanueva during Pittsburgh’s preseason game against the Eagles. Reportedly, Tomlin looked across the field and noticed the tallest man on the opposing sideline was standing at attention, hand over heart, during the playing of the national anthem. When he learned Villanueva had been cut, Tomlin approached the former Army Ranger and told him would give him the opportunity to learn his position and the NFL game while building his body. He told Villanueva all he expected from him was max effort.

Talk about a piece of cake. After all, this is a man who reportedly became known as “The Giant” to the Taliban, during his first tour as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Army. Stationed in Kandahar Province, he was the rifle platoon leader of the 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team. Without going into graphic detail, suffice it to say, Villanueva and his soldiers were involved in some serious fighting. Memories of playing football on Saturday’s for West Point? The good old days, for sure.

Alejandro Villanueva

“What I remember most is about him during his years at West Point was his presence,” recalls Rich DeMarco, the radio voice of Army football. “Alejandro carried himself with a clear confidence. When you look at the trajectory of his career, the confidence, along with his versatility, obviously has served him well.  I’m not at all surprised to see him in the NFL. What I find remarkable is that he has been able to switch positions again and again, and still make it to the NFL.”

How many chances will he get after a game like the one last Sunday? Does it even really matter?

The word so far is that Tomlin hasn’t lost faith in the Villanueva project. The coach sees nothing more reps and more hours in the film room can’t fix. He knows the player will put in the work.

And, as always, stand tall.