UNITY TWP., Pa. — Better than almost anyone you can think of, Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva understands death.
As a captain in the U.S. Army Rangers, Villanueva experienced the loss of fellow servicemen during tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq.
During the firefight in Kandahar, Afghanistan, that later earned him a Bronze star, Villanueva carried wounded and dying soldiers to help under enemy fire.
So while the rest of Steelers training camp slammed to a halt following Sunday’s sudden death of wide receivers coach Darryl Drake, Villanueva is trying to keep things in perspective.
“You can’t compare the two,” Villanueva said while speaking to reports on Wednesday. “I think in the Army, you prepare for these things to happen. You expect for these things to happen. They definitely unity the group when they do happen — maybe not for the right reasons — but they definitely have an impact on the morale of the unit.”
“Sometimes, it’s vengeful toward the responsible culprits. In this case, it was just one person. The kids that died in battle were usually 18, 19 years old. So it’s a little bit more difficult to swallow when you think of their kids that they’re never going to meet. It’s part of the culture. It’s part of the Army culture to deal with death.”
Villanueva said that his firsthand experience with death in the Army gives him a perspective that some of his teammates — particularly those that have not dealt with death in their lives previously — might not have.
“I think once you get over the deployments and can put it all into the rear-view mirror, you do learn some very valuable lessons about death,” Villanueva said. “It can make you appreciate life. Death is part of life. You cannot have life without death. It’s something that individually, everybody has to deal with. Because death comes to all of us.”
But the big tackle, for whom protection has now been a career staple in two very different ways, also said that he can only do so much when it comes to helping his teammates through the grieving process.
“Religion helps some,” he said. “Obviously, we’re here at St. Vincent. You know I’m Catholic, so for me, it might be a little bit easier to deal with than for some other people that might be looking for questions and answers.
“I don’t want to put pressure and I don’t want to put my beliefs and my narratives on my teammates on how to deal with death. People have their own experiences. From Afghanistan and Iraq, in war, the life of a soldier is sometimes honored a lot more and sometimes glorified when you do that. It’s a very dangerous discussion to compare the two.”
The one person that can help lead the Steelers though this difficult time, in Villanueva’s opinion, is head coach Mike Tomlin. Tomlin’s leadership ability has come into question after a drama-filled 2018 season. But according to Villanueva, he’s struck the proper tone to keep his team moving forward in spite of the personal and professional loss.
“I think Coach Tomlin has done a very good of job of understanding what would Coach Drake want from all of us right now at this moment,” Villanueva said. “He would not want us to dwell on this. He definitely would want us to have a good sense of humor about this. For us, it’s about starting to realize that we have a season to play. That we have to get focused. The playmakers have to make plays. It is a great opportunity to honor his life and his legacy my making those plays, by staying focused and playing our best football.”