"This opportunity, obviously it's something I've worked pretty hard for," said Villanueva, a former offensive lineman and, wait for it, wide receiver during his college career at Army. "Going through the Regional and Super Regional Combine … has been truly a blessing. To get a look from the Eagles and be invited to come here and a work out and ultimately be able to sign, I'm very blessed and feel very fortunate for this opportunity. I don't want to disappoint anybody and will work as hard as I can and give it my best shot."
The Regional and Super Regional Combine events are not the same as the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. They are for hopeful players way off the grid, including those who participated in other sports in college or have been away from football for years for whatever reason. The chances of making it from a Regional Combine to the Super Regional Combine are slim, and even slimmer of making it onto an NFL roster from there. Yet these showcases are around specifically for hopefuls like Villanueva, men who want to make someone take notice so they can get that one last shot at chasing a dream.
"I went (to the Regional Combine) without an agent," Villanueva said. "It was a situation where I got back from my deployment and had this opportunity come up. I wasn't really in shape, to be honest, but I thought there was maybe potential to get me to the Super Regional and buy a little more time to work out. Once I completed the Regional in Atlanta, I was invited to the Super Regional, where I was able to perform in front of NFL scouts, and that's when the Eagles took a look at me. One of their scouts was sent out there, all 32 teams had scouts there, looking for one or two guys who might bring something to a team. I had a lot of phone calls from team (after the Super Regional), asking me about my ability to get out of the army and play football. I didn't really keep track of which teams called, but the Eagles showed the most interest and that's ultimately why I ended up here."
The transition for Villanueva goes beyond his way of life. On the field, the 6-foot-9, 277-pounder is also being asked to switch sides of the ball. Villanueva brought his gloves to the workout with the Eagles but quickly realized after being put through bag drills that his future with the team would not be on offense – rather, it would be on the defensive line. His size, length and athletic ability make him an intriguing depth option for a unit that emerged as one of the Eagles' most promising in 2013.
Villanueva's duty as a U.S. Army Ranger in Afghanistan was to protect an assigned village from insurgency and similar threats presented by the Taliban and other affiliated militant groups. His time as a Ranger affected Villanueva deeply and gave him a new perspective on life, as well as a profound appreciation for Afghanistan and its inhabitants who just want to live peacefully.
"The first time I was (in Afghanistan), I was in Zhari District, and there were a lot of situations where I was right in the middle of a lot of stuff," Villanueva said. "When I got back from Afghanistan (following my first deployment), it almost had the feeling like your life starts now. So, everything after getting back is plus time on your life. It gives you a very close look at death, and so you really, truly appreciate the smaller things and try to take all the steps in the right direction in life because you know what's at the end, essentially. Before I deployed for the first time, I thought I was going to live forever. You think you're indestructible, but when you have those experiences, you start seeing how vulnerable your life is and how quickly everything can end.
"Afghanistan is a great country. It's beautiful. The people are great, and I truly hope that they find peace. I truly wish that for the Afghans and for all the lives and U.S. blood that has been spilled in Afghanistan. I truly hope that they find peace, especially in the upcoming years, and that they find a solution to the insurgency there and live together peacefully in their own country and move forward in one direction."
In addition to feeling like he made a positive impact on the lives of villagers, Villanueva also remembers Afghanistan fondly for the time he served with fellow soldiers. However, it was playing football at the base that he recalled as the most fun he had while serving – a slice of home to take his mind off the realities of the surrounding war-time environment.
"The best memories were the time I spent with my soldiers and my men," Villanueva said. "There were a lot of guys that I met, a lot of guys that I served with. I think my most fun memory was playing football in the HLZ (Helicopter Landing Zone) that we had on (the base in Afghanistan). It's something that I looked at and would describe it as the most fun football that I've ever played. We played touch but tackle in the last quarter if things got pretty intense and it was a tie game, that's when we'd bring guys down to the ground."
Villanueva joins the Eagles with the sense that he is playing both for himself and something bigger. His innate desire to serve is no longer an option as a member of the Army at the moment, but he knows that he has the chance to make an impact elsewhere – on the gridiron and off of it. Villanueva wants to proudly represent his alma mater and everything for which the Army stands.
"This is something personal," Villanueva said. "I'm an Army football player. Everything that I do, when I put an Eagles uniform, an Army uniform or a suit and tie, I represent whoever I'm serving. It doesn't matter what I do on and off the field, I feel I have a responsibility on my shoulders to represent the values and everything that I've learned from the U.S. Army."