Jason Kelce wowed by former teammate's 'incredible story'
Kelce was impressed by his former teammate's "incredible story", which originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia
It was summer 2014 and Alejandro Villaneuva wasn't even an attacking lineman.
Even so, Jason Kelce knew he was special.
“Am I surprised that he made it? Not at all, ”Kelce said. “His work ethic was incredible. He was incredibly smart. He had all the tools and everyone could see it. "
Six years on, Villaneuva is one of the NFL's best offensive tackles, and the Eagles will see him on Sunday when they take on the Steelers at Heinz Field.
"Alejandro Villanueva's story is incredible," said Kelce.
It all started on May 5, 2014 when the Eagles signed 25-year-old Villaneuva, though he hadn't played organized football since he played for the Army in 2009.
Villaneuva played with the Army wide receiver, tight end and defensive lineman and then served as a decorated rifle platoon leader in Afghanistan, where he received a bronze star and numerous other awards. He later served as a platoon leader with the Army Rangers and served two other tours in Afghanistan.
But in 2014 he decided to try his hand at the NFL.
"To get a glimpse of the Eagles and be invited to come here and train and ultimately be able to sign, I am very blessed and very happy for this opportunity," Villanueva said to a number during the NovaCare complex by Beat-Jungs Spring-Minicamp 2014. "I don't want to disappoint anyone and will work as hard as possible to do my best."
The Eagles had just drafted Lane Johnson in the first round a year earlier, and Jason Peters was still one of the best offensive tackles in the league.
So the Eagles gave Villaneuva a look as a defensive ending, 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's done this preseason was paying attention and greeting during the national anthem ahead of a preseason game against the Steelers at the Linc.
Because it was then that he first caught the attention of Steeler's head coach Mike Tomlin on the opposite side.
"There was a man over there who was about a head taller than anyone else who saluted during the anthem, and that caught my eye," Tomlin told reporters in Pittsburgh a year later. "I wanted to know that this huge human was saluting over there."
A few days after the Eagles released Villaneuva he was accepted into the practice group by the Steelers, and GM Kevin Colbert and Tomlin immediately put him on the offensive.
Villaneuva spent the year learning a new position and gaining weight, going from £ 250 as an eagle to £ 340 as a steeler.
By the summer of 2015 he was so advanced that he had got the team out of the camp. And when Kelvin Beachum suffered a knee injury in the second quarter of a sixth week game against the Cards at the end of the season, Villaneuva got the call.
His first piece was an incomplete passport from the former eagle Michael Vick to the future eagle Markus Wheaton.
Villaneuva played well enough to make his first NFL start against the Chiefs a week later and has not left the field since.
Villaneuva has started the last 78 regular season games [plus six playoff games] for the Steelers in left tackle, the fourth-longest current series of all offensive NFL tackles. He's only missed 32 snaps since taking over for Beachum five years ago.
He made the Pro Bowl in 2017 and 2018.
"I think he's a great person," said Kelce. "He's a guy you can sit down with for two hours and talk to the ball with, or sit down with and talk about life for two hours. He's going to get you thinking and talking about every second and yours Expand mind. He's the guy I'll have a beer with any day of the week and it will probably be the best I've had in a while. "
In a way, Kelce and Villaneuva are feather birds. Villaneuva was not called up, Kelce an election in the 6th round. Both are cerebral and secular and both have overcome tremendous opportunities to become multiple pro bowlers.
A few years ago they even went fly fishing together.
"I'm looking forward to seeing the big guy," Kelce said. "He's such a good person and he's a great player too. I hope he has a bad one this week, but I wish him all the best.
"There aren't too many people in a training camp that you develop a relationship with. There's just something about the person that stays with you."
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