Alejandro Villanueva, the former Army Ranger who earned a spot as an offensive tackle with the Pittsburgh Steelers after leaving the Army in 2015, is retiring after a seven-year career in the National Football League. The two-time Pro Bowler played six seasons with Pittsburgh before signing with the Baltimore Ravens in 2021.
Villanueva served in the US Army’s 10th Mountain Division and 75th Ranger Regiment, deploying three times to Afghanistan. He graduated from the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York, in 2010. As a rifle platoon commander, Villanueva served in Afghanistan in 2011 with the 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, of the 10th Mountain Division.
When Villanueva’s unit was ambushed by a squad of Taliban fighters, three of his men were quickly wounded. Braving enemy fire, Villanueva retrieved Pfc. Jesse Dietrich — the most grievously wounded of the three soldiers — and dragged him inside a nearby mosque where the unit’s medic took over administering medical aid. When their position in the mosque became untenable, Villanueva led the effort to relocate the three casualties, carrying one of them on his shoulders. Dietrich ultimately succumbed to his injuries, but the other two casualties survived. For his courage under fire, Villanueva was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for valor.
Villanueva completed two more combat tours in Afghanistan as a member of the 1st Ranger Battalion.
During his six seasons with the Steelers, Villanueva started in a franchise-record 91 games. He helped the Steelers win three American Football Conference North division championships (2016, 2017, 2020), and the Steelers reached the AFC Championship game in 2016, falling just short of the Super Bowl. He played his final NFL season with the Baltimore Ravens.
During his time in the NFL, the offensive tackle built a reputation in the league as an ardent supporter of the armed forces. In 202o, Villanueva wore Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe’s name on his helmet to highlight the fight to have Cashe’s Silver Star upgraded to the Medal of Honor.
“Every single time I have the opportunity to thank anybody who’s joining the military, I always take the time to thank them for their service, for their sacrifices and their families,” Villanueva told Sports Illustrated in 2020.
Now 33, Villanueva is eager to put football behind him. In a radio interview Thursday, March 10, the West Point graduate described the NFL as “a little bit circus-like.” He also said that, if the war in Ukraine were to escalate, he would consider returning to active duty.
“That’s why I’m so skinny,” the former Army Ranger said. “I’m 265 right now. The moment we have to go, there’s no way I’m going to be on the sidelines. I think most veterans, if there’s a war, you don’t want to see somebody else go fight it.”
Villanueva plans to move to Miami with his family, finally leaving football and the bitter cold of Pittsburgh and Baltimore behind him.