LATROBE (KDKA) — Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Alejandro Villanueva, a former Army Ranger, spoke the 2019 graduates of St. Vincent College and spoke of the experiences he’s had as a football player, veteran and humanitarian.
“To me life is like reading a tough book,” Villanueva said. “As you read it, sometimes you’ll read a page or paragraph where you have to stop and ask yourself, ‘What in the world did I just read?’ Similarly, we all try to make sense of life as best we can, and over time, it becomes a collection of chapters and anecdotes that ultimately come together the shape our outlook on life.”
Villanueva struggled with reading comprehension in school because English was not his first language, and he said he would summarize pages into one sentence to help him understand ideas.
“These sentences in real life are nothing more than life lessons,” he said.
One of his first mental notes came from his time at Army Ranger training school in the mountains of Georgia. During that time, the trainees spent two five-day spans in wilderness marching with their equipment during a record cold spell. They were pushed beyond the point of exhaustion.
“It was pretty wild to watch your body wrestle with being cold, sleepy and hungry,” Villanueva said. “I found that cold is by far the most debilitating weakness of the mind, followed by sleepiness and finally hunger.”
He and his fellow trainees were afforded rest for brief periods and during those times, Villanueva found an experience he previously thought wasn’t possible.
“During this rest, our eyes would shout, and we would quickly go into a very deep sleep,” he said. “We were so tired, that we would actually dream that we were sleeping and dream, experiencing dreams inside of dreams.”
After graduating from West Point, Villanueva served three tours of duty as an Army Ranger in Afghanistan from 2010-2013, where he earned a Bronze Star Medal for valor as he rescued wounded soldiers from enemy fire.
When he returned home, he pursued his dream of professional football and signed with the Steelers in 2014. It was here he made another important discovery.
“I’m not sure of the exact moment, and I can’t recall being in a specific place, but I Realized that in such a competitive environment where egos, jealousy and envy are the three most common things you breathe in the air, you’re really only competing with yourself,” he said. “There is a saying in the NFL that the day you sign your contract is the happiest and saddest day of your career. You think you’re happy to achieve this milestone, but all of a sudden, when you look around, you realize that the thing you’ve fought so hard for does not change any of the things you expect it to change.”
Villanueva offered that as a microcosm of society today, saying that many challenges we face stem from competitive nature, but an inability to see that lives are different from one another.
“The person you think is yourself only exists in you,” he said. “Every other person you meet in life creates another version of you, and with every person that you meet, you create a version of them in your head that is always different from who they really are.”
His football reputation is solidified as a Pro-Bowler, but he continues to further his humanitarian reputation by giving back to fellow veterans and causes that help the less fortunate. That is his third mental note.
“I don’t think anyone here will not find satisfaction in giving back to others,” Villanueva said. “Giving without recognition is the most fulfilling. Giving to a person that is harder to like is the most rewarding. Giving without hesitation is the most authentic.”