It was the summer of 2014 and Alejandro Villaneuva wasn’t even an offensive lineman yet.
But still, Jason Kelce knew he was special.
“Am I surprised he ended up making it? Not at all,” Kelce said. “His work ethic was unbelievable. He was incredibly smart. He had all the tools and everybody could see it.”
Six years later, Villaneuva is one of the NFL’s best offensive tackles, and the Eagles will see him Sunday when they face the Steelers at Heinz Field.
“The Alejandro Villanueva story is incredible,” Kelce said.
It all began on May 5, 2014, when the Eagles signed the 25-year-old Villaneuva even though he hadn’t played organized football since 2009, when he played for Army.
Villaneuva played wide receiver, tight end and defensive lineman at Army and went on to serve as a decorated rifle platoon leader in Afghanistan, earning a bronze star and numerous other honors. He later served as a platoon leader with the Army Rangers and served two more tours in Afghanistan.
But in 2014 he decided to try his hand at the NFL.
“To get a look from the Eagles and be invited to come here and work out and ultimately be able to sign, I’m very blessed and feel very fortunate for this opportunity,” Villanueva told a bunch of beat guys outside the NovaCare Complex during spring minicamp in 2014. “I don’t want to disappoint anybody and will work as hard as I can to give it my best shot.”
The Eagles had just drafted Lane Johnson in the first round a year earlier, and Jason Peters was still one of the top offensive tackles in the league.
So the Eagles gave Villaneuva a look as a defensive end, and he played 50 snaps and had six tackles in three preseason games. He even sacked Patriots quarterback Ryan Mallett in a preseason game in Foxboro.
But the biggest thing he did that preseason was stand at attention and salute during the national anthem before a preseason game against the Steelers at the Linc.
Because that’s when he first got the attention of Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin on the opposite sideline.
“There was a guy standing over there about a head taller than everybody else saluting during the anthem and it kind of got my attention,” Tomlin told reporters in Pittsburgh a year later. “I wanted to know about this enormous human being over there saluting.”
A few days after the Eagles released Villaneuva, the Steelers signed him to their practice squad and GM Kevin Colbert and Tomlin immediately moved him to offensive tackle.
Villaneuva spent the year learning a new position and putting on weight, going from 250 pounds as an Eagle to 340 as a Steeler.
By the summer of 2015 he had advanced so far he made the team out of camp. And when Kelvin Beachum suffered a season-ending knee injury during the second quarter of a Week 6 game against the Cards, Villaneuva got the call.
His first play was an incomplete pass from former Eagle Michael Vick to future Eagle Markus Wheaton.
Villaneuva played well enough to earn his first NFL start a week later against the Chiefs, and he hasn’t left the field since.
Villaneuva has started the last 78 regular-season games [plus six playoff games] for the Steelers at left tackle, the 4th-longest current streak by any NFL offensive tackle. He’s only missed 32 snaps since he took over for Beachum five years ago.
He made the Pro Bowl in 2017 and 2018.
“I think that he’s a tremendous human being,” Kelce said. “He’s a guy that you can sit down and talk ball with for two hours or you can sit down and talk about life for two hours. He’s going to keep you thinking and talking and expanding your mind every second of it. He’s the type of guy I’ll have a beer with any day of the week and it’ll probably be the best one I’ve had in awhile.”
In a way, Kelce and Villaneuva are birds of a feather. Villaneuva was undrafted, Kelce a 6th-round pick. Both are cerebral and worldly and both overcame tremendous odds to become multiple Pro Bowlers.
They even went fly fishing together a couple years ago.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the big guy,” Kelce said. “He’s such a good person and then on top of that, he’s a great player. Hopefully he has a bad one this week, but I wish him nothing but the best.
“There’s not too many guys through a training camp that you forge a relationship with. There’s just something about the person that sticks with you.”