The Eagles signed the 6-foot-9 US Army Ranger earlier this month after watching him work out at a Regional Combine event in Detroit. Now that rookie camp has begun, Villanueva is adjusting on the fly to the NFL lifestyle.
"The biggest transition in my life right now is leaving the military," Villanueva said. "I've been wearing a uniform and a flag for about eight years now. It's all I know. I can't remember anything that happened before going to West Point. It's kind of different not saluting the flag in the morning, not saying the Ranger Creed and not hanging up your military helmet at the end of the day, as opposed to a football helmet."
Villanueva had clearly become fully immersed in the military lifestyle, but after three deployments to Afghanistan, he decided it was time to retire his fatigues. It was an unselfish act, taking into account those around him, but that didn't make the decision any easier.
"It was a very tough decision," Villanueva explained. "My wife and I, we just got married last November, and we decided that we weren't going to stay in the military, just for the fact that we move around a lot and it's a lot of sacrifice. I've been watching a lot of the soldiers that we have in our nation go through a lot of tough times with their families, and I decided that I was going to leave after five years.
"Personally, I would love to stay in the military for 40 years if I could, but I understand that now my priority is my family. It's a very difficult transition in terms of what jobs are out there that I can have. Football obviously is the optimal, in terms of what I could be doing in my life, but the decision was very tough."
Villanueva played football at West Point for four seasons, and even through the tough times overseas, the game was something that always stuck with him.
"If I could go back in time, I would have done the exact same thing," Villanueva said. "I loved my experience of going to Afghanistan and experiencing combat … football is my passion. Even when I was in Afghanistan, I was always turning on (Armed Forces Network) and watching the games. It's a beautiful game. Obviously, I love competing and I'm taking this as a professional job, not just as entertainment. Afghanistan is over now, and I've just got to look past it."
Standing tall at 6-foot-9, 277-pounds, Villanueva played a variety of different positions for the Black Knights. As the Army coaches tried to find the perfect fit for him, Villanueva ended up taking snaps on both the offensive and defensive lines, as well as playing tight end and wide receiver. He finished his senior season as Army's leading receiver with 522 yards and five touchdown grabs.
Despite a successful senior campaign, all of that moving around left Villanueva wondering what could have been if he had been able to hone his craft at one position.
"I left West Point very unsure of my abilities because I played three different positions and I was never able to really build upon the different positions," Villanueva explained. "I played here in Philadelphia (in the Army-Navy game) as a tackle and a wide receiver, so I never knew what my potential could be.
"It was heavy on my heart the last time I hung up my cleats at Army, because I said, ‘Man, if I could have just had one more season at wide receiver, I could have gotten 1,000 yards,' or ‘If I would have played two seasons at tackle, maybe I would have had a wonderful season with those great coaches that we had down there.' I had a lot of questions in my mind when I came for the workout, and at the end of the day when they showed interest, it was a very exciting opportunity for me."
Villanueva was signed by the Eagles to play defensive end, adding depth to a young position group. He knows that the road ahead will be challenging as his NFL career begins, but he's more than ready for anything that comes his way. As the patriotic Eagle pointed out, whether his helmet is covered in camouflage or Eagles wings, his mindset remains the same.
"I think that with football and the military, you just take one day at a time," Villanueva said. "There are a lot of days in Afghanistan where you have really rough days where not everybody makes it back from a mission or somebody gets hurt. In the military you owe it your guys and in football you owe it to yourself, just to reset your mind and seize the next day and try to do the best that you can. Otherwise, you're keeping emotions and keeping thoughts in your head that are going to slow you down and not make you the leader that you want to be in combat or as a football player on the field."