Veterans

The Ranger the Taliban called ‘the giant’ got his first NFL start

Pittsburgh Steelers tackle Alejandro Villanueva. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack, File)

Pittsburgh Steelers tackle Alejandro Villanueva. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack, File)

Alejandro Villanueva is a former West Point lineman and Army Ranger who got his first start at tackle on Sunday as the Pittsburgh Steelers faced the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium. He took on the high-pressure role of protecting the “blind side” of backup quarterback Landry Jones, who’s in due to starter Ben Roethlisberger’s injury.

But Villanueva knows a thing or two about pressure, like, the life-or-death kind that soldiers face during wartime on a daily basis. And for him one night in particular stands out among many pressure-filled missions he carried out over the course of four tours in Afghanistan.

As reported by the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, Villanueva was serving as a 2nd lieutenant in Afghanistan. Stationed in the Kandahar Province, he was the rifle platoon leader of the 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team. A firefight had broken out between the Taliban and Afghan civilians, and, in trying to protect them, Lt. Villanueva had unknowingly led his troops into an ambush. The Taliban was waiting in the dark for Villanueva, the 6-foot-9 man known as “The Giant,” and opened fire, wounding three soldiers. Two of them survived, but Pfc. Dietrich, 20, bled out through the hole in his back moments after Lt. Villanueva had carried him from the fray and loaded him onto a helicopter.

Less than a month after Pfc. Dietrich died, Staff Sgt. Simon was shot three times, and Lt. Villanueva’s was the last face he remembered as he was loaded onto the helicopter. Staff Sgt. Simon nearly died twice, and Lt. Villanueva was given his dog tags and asked to prepare a memorial speech for his parents. But Staff Sgt. Simon lived, and he planned to watch his friend play against the Chiefs, his favorite team, from the stands of Arrowhead Stadium.

“It’s going to be crazy,” said Mr. Simon, now retired from the military.

And, along with knowing pressure, these war veterans know crazy.

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