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Newest Eagle Tackles NFL's Challenge

There are no illusions for Alejandro Villanueva: He knows he is as raw an NFL prospect as they come and that progress will be measured in baby steps ...

That's just fine with Villanueva, signed by the Eagles on Monday. His journey has been well documented and it will be re-told many times in the coming months. The young man had a fine football career at West Point and then served his country as a United States Army Ranger for four years and now, well, he's trying to make it work in the NFL as a 25-year-old rookie who hasn't played a football game since 2009.

This isn't Invincible, Part II but it's about as close as we come these days. Villanueva is a genuine American hero and he has the respect of everyone he meets. His story is the real deal, and there is no more impressive person than Villanueva for his dedication to this country and his pursuit of the NFL dream.

Once the story melts away, the reality sets in: Villanueva faces mighty long odds at the very highest level of football. He's got all the determination and toughness and mental focus a person could have, but he hasn't been on the field since 2009 and he hasn't played more than a spoonful of snaps -- by NFL standards -- on the defensive line.

Villanueva participated in the NFL's Regional and Super Regional Combine and the Eagles liked what they saw of his body -- 6 feet 9, 277 pounds -- and decided to sign him to a contract. Nothing is a gift in the NFL. Every one of the 90 roster spots is precious. How long this lasts, nobody knows.

For every minute he is here, though, Villanueva is going to cherish the opportunity.

"I don't think they said anything impressed them," said Villanueva when asked what the Eagles told him impressed them about his workouts. "It's more the size, being able to play in a 3-4 and getting some standoff with the guard and the tackle. Obviously, right now the physical (part) and my height needs to be used. I need to learn how to use my height on the field. Being able to use my arms, being able to extend and create some separation, if I'm able to do that then there are some benefits to having a 6-10 guy on the field.

"I love challenges."

There aren't any greater in the athletic world. Eagles head coach Chip Kelly has said that "big guys beat up little guys" on the field, and that may be true. Villanueva isn't a typical big guy. He made plays at Army as a go-up-and-get-the-football wide receiver who towwered over cornerbacks. Now he has to learn to use his height in a confined area with a dozen other things happening at the snap of the ball.

Villanueva is bright eyed and eager and making every day here count.

"It's a great opportunity," he said. "I'm very surprised at how friendly everybody is in the Eagles locker room, the coaches are extremely welcoming and they're looking for that effectiveness and that progress in order to win. I'm extremely eager to get on board with everything and obviously try to work hard to contribute on the field."

Can Villanueva make it? Would you bet against someone who has served three tours in Afghanistan, who has been in the real trenches to serve our country?

The expectations must be realistic, though. Villanueva has a long, long way to go before the Eagles will have a strong sense of his ceiling on the football field. Each day in the team's offseason conditioning program is spent with a purpose. Villanueva must get his body into NFL shape. He needs to learn the nuances of the game. And he has to do it all in the game's version of a microsecond.

Challenge, indeed.

"I'm going to learn every day, absorb everything I can," said Villanueva. "I'm thankful for the chance and I'm going to make the most of it."

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