TWO ARMY VETERANS CONTINUE THEIR JOURNEY AS PRO FOOTBALL PLAYERS
During World War I and World War II Hollywood fed the public images and stories of war that were anything but realistic.
The movie industry and early television handed audiences what was basically propaganda.
Actors including John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart made war seem glorious and in some cases almost clean.
And that is a shame because people did not get all the facts about the horrors of war and were deprived the actual accounts of the unimaginable level of courage it took for these men and women to fight for their country.
But since the Vietnam War, the reality of armed conflict and the sacrifices the men and women of the military made to keep America and its allies free are right in front of us in every horrendous way possible.
With the internet and social media, there is nothing left to hide, as soldiers can pull back the curtain with their own smart phones and computers directly from the front line.
The negatives are obvious, the positives are that we can see uncensored video feeds from harm’s way and thus the American public can much more appreciate and realize what these people go through.
The two professional football teams of Philadelphia: the Eagles of the NFL and the Soul of the Arena Football League have on their respective rosters, recent veterans who have returned from tours of torn Afghanistan.
Both returned as heroes. Both are dealing – as do all those who serve in armed conflict – with the challenges of dealing with the memories.
Alejandro Villanueva, a 6-foot-9, 277-pound defensive lineman who played for Army and signed recently by the Eagles and 6-5, 255-pound Morkeith Brown, also a defensive lineman who has been with the Soul for two seasons after a career at Temple, both still struggle with adjusting to being back in the United States after putting their lives on the line for years in Afghanistan.
“The biggest transition in my life right now is to the leave the military,” Villanueva said at a recent press conference. “I’ve worn the one uniform and the flag for about eight years now. It’s all I know. I can’t remember anything that’s happened before going to West Point. So it is kind of different…not saluting the flag in the morning. At the end of the day you’re not hanging up your military helmet, it’s your football helmet.”
Villanueva said he tries to transfer his personal philosophy from the military to playing professional football.
“Whether it’s football or the military, you just take one day at a time,” said Villanueva, who has not played football since 2009. “There were times in Afghanistan where you have some really rough days where not everybody gets back from a mission or somebody gets hurt. In the military you owe it to your guys, in football you owe it to yourself. You have to reset your mind and try to do the best you can otherwise emotions, keeping thoughts in your head, that are going to slow you down and not make you the leader you want to be in combat or as a football player you want to be out on the field.”
Villanueva spent the last four years as an active member of the U.S. Army, serving a total of three tours in Afghanistan. He was most recently promoted to Captain earlier this month. Villanueva has earned many honors for his service, including the Bronze Star Medal for Valor, the Ranger Tab, the Parachutist Badge, the Bronze Star Medal for overseas service, National Defense Service Medal, Afghanistan Campaign Medal with Campaign Star, Global War on Terrorism Service Ribbon, Army Service Ribbon, Overseas Service Ribbon, NATO Medal, Combat Infantryman’s Badge and Expert Infantryman’s Badge.
The Eagles watched the 25-year-old Villanueva perform at the Super Regional Combine in Detroit this offseason from April 12-13. He last played football in 2009 for Army as a wide receiver after converting to that position prior to his senior season.
That year, Villanueva served as the Black Knights offensive captain and led the team in catches (34), yards (522) and touchdowns (5). He originally began his career at Army seeing action as a reserve defensive lineman from 2006-07 before making the transition to left tackle in 2008, starting all 12 games at that position in his junior campaign.
Villanueva said he would not change a thing if they had to do it over again
“If I could go back in time I would have done the same thing,” Villanueva said. “I love my experience of going to Afghanistan and experiencing combat such as men always do. But football on the other hand is my passion. Even when you were in Afghanistan, you always turned on AFN (Armed Forces Network) and watch the games. It’s a beautiful game, I love competing. Obviously I am taking this as a professional job…this is entertainment. Afghanistan is over now, I just have to look past it.”
A coach, looking for answers, with a player measuring 6-9, 277 pounds with athletic ability, will no doubt try to use that player at the spot to help his team. Such was the case for Villanueva at West Point.
Villanueva said he was unable to stay at one position for very long on the field.
“I never knew what my position would be,” Villanueva said. “It was heavy in my heart..the last time I hung up my cleats at Army thought, ‘man if I had just one more season at wide receiver, I could have gotten a thousand yards. If I had played two seasons at tackle maybe I could have had a wonderful season with those great coaches we had down there.’”
“In the military, when you get put in a position, you are expected to perform the next day,” Villanueva said. “The NFL is a building process. Unfortunately I don’t have the luxury of time. It’s going to be a battle between me picking things up early, but knowing I have to develop myself as a player and realize my potential.”
Villanueva said trying to make football his living was a family decision that was not an easy one.
“It was a tough decision,” Villanueva said. “My wife and I, we decided that we were not going to stay in the military. We moved around a lot, it was a lot of sacrifice, I’ve been watching a lot of soldiers we have in the nation going through a lot of tough times with their families and I decided I was going to leave after five years. Me personally I would have loved to stay in the military for years if I could. But I understand now that my priorities are now my family.
“This was a very difficult transition,” he continued. “What jobs are out there that I could have. Football is the optimal in terms of what I can do with my life. The Army is shrinking, those leadership roles are not there anymore.”
Brown has been back from duty longer than Villanueva. He has been on a team for nearly two years as a pro. So it is natural his teammates know what their friend and teammate go through adjusting to normal life.
Soul defensive lineman Bryan Robinson talked about their conversations about life during war.
“We’ve talked about it a lot,” Robinson said. “We’ve joke about a couple of things and we’ve talked about some serious things. It’s definitely a life-changing experience for him. As he converts back to regular civilian life, as he continues on each day, it becomes fun for him. At times he was on edge a little bit. He’s a great guy…I appreciate his services, what he’s done for us. I tell him that all the time. What he does here is feed of what type a person he is and who he is.”
Offensive lineman Adam Smith, like all his teammates and coaches, appreciate what Brown has done with his life.
“Any guy, especially after going through something like that and comes to play football, it’s a great honor to play with a guy like that,” Smith said. “We thank him a lot. It’s good to see a guy live his dreams by coming to play football after serving.”
Quarterback Dan Raudabaugh said he knows he may not be enjoying football if it were not for people like Brown.
“We’re blessed to have a player of Morkeith’s ability and not only his ability to play football but his moral character,” Raudabaugh said. “He’s a good guy to have around. He sacrificed a lot for his country and not only for his country but for guys like us who didn’t enlist and gave us an opportunity to play this wonderful game of football. We take our hats off to Morkeith, we have nothing but thankfulness and we’re very grateful that we have such a wonderful country and wonderful men and women who are willing to sacrifice themselves, their time and their families to go over there and allow us to live freely over here.”
Raudabaugh said Brown has shared his experiences without holding back.
“Morkeith has told us stories before and it’s some some stuff a lot of people when never want to see,” Raudabaugh said. “I think it’s a better man and it’s making us better men to be around someone like that.”
Morkeith was asked if being to war in a place like Afghanistan put his life and what he does here – play football – into some kind of perspective on how trivial sports is compared to the real-life experiences he had defending his country. His answer might surprise people.
“I couldn’t say that,” Brown said after contemplating his answer for a few seconds. “Because life goes on and at the same time my body is my job. In the military your knowledge of your teammates is not part of your job, even if they die or something happens to them. Its’ not like ‘life goes on,’ it does go on, but you don’t think like you’re still thinking about that person. Here I am still thinking about the (football) injury but I have to put it to the side, I can’t dwell on it.”
Brown, who served in the Army and toured Afghanistan in 2004 & 05 talked about adjusting to life in general when he came back.
“It was definitely different,” Brown said. “You go from having to be aware 24/7 not being able to trust anyone except those in the military or in your unit. There you are accountable for more than one person, more than just yourself. You have to be accountable for everyone in your unit, in your platoon. You watch over people, doing security checks, stuff like that. It’s always being uptight. So going from being uptight to coming back and try to learn how to relax and (realize) that not everybody is out to get you. It’s hard to transition. But through rehab, classes it’s possible to relax. It doesn’t happen for everybody, luckily it didn’t affect me as bad as it did some other veterans. You’ve got to pray for them.”
How does football help coming back.
“It helps because of the camaraderie,” Brown said. “The military is very high when it comes to camaraderie. You’re with your boys, your friends, the people that you are with. Football is the same thing, the people I am with, I battle with on the field are the people that I hang out with off the field. The people I battle with overseas are the same people I go hang out with when I come back home. Football helped me to remember the whole camaraderie thing.”
Brown is out for a while with a pectoral injury. Robinson said the Soul defense will be fine for now but look for their teammate’s return.
“Our coaching staff Lew (Lemar Mosley), Clint (Delezel) and Phil (Bogle) have done a good job of getting in guys who can easily step in and fill those voids” Robinson said. We’ve got (Jerome) Williams whose recently come in the last few weeks, Teddy Jennings has done a real good job all year, he filled in for me for a little bit. So we have a lot of guys who have done a real good job of coming in and not really missing a step. When Morkeith is ready to come back I know he is going to lead right where he left off.”
And every other way possible.