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Super Regional Combine: Army veteran giving NFL one last shot

DETROIT -- He only catches your eye in the first place because of his raw size.

Then, you find out the magnitude of First Lieutenant Allejandro Villanueva's story dwarfs even that 6-foot-9 frame.

Two-hundred-and-forty players were invited here, to Ford Field, this past weekend for the NFL's Super Regional Combine. Unlike some of the regionals, this one isn't such a mixed bag when it comes to skill level, since players have to qualify. Ninety-one players in last year's crop wound up signing with clubs, and four were drafted. Accordingly, 62 percent of this year's invitees are draft-eligible.

Villanueva is not. He was four years ago after graduating from West Point, and he did get a shot with the Bengals back then, but because of stiff service regulations from the academy, he knew his appearance in Cincinnati was more cameo than commitment. Truth be told, his aspirations were elsewhere anyhow.

"As soon as I graduated, especially with all my classmates at West Point who were all going to serve, my mind and my heart were going to Afghanistan," he said, after working out Sunday. "That's where I wanted to be. I wanted to serve, I wanted to see combat. I was actually trying to get as many deployments as I could, and see it with different units. That's where my mind and my heart was."

This year is different than that year.

The gigantic tight end is gonna give it a real shot this time. Maybe it'll work. Maybe it won't.

But merely getting the opportunity, well, that's the idea of all this. As the above statistics indicate, the majority of the qualifiers for Detroit this weekend were players nudged out for spots at the Indianapolis combine. The rest have stories.

A.J. Dohanic was a champion hurdler at Appalachian State, and hasn't played in a game since his senior year in high school. He was hit in the face by the ball during a gauntlet drill -- and he came away with a 40 time in the 4.4s. Jay-T Rysaac is 34, five draft classes older than anyone else, and once had cups of coffee with the Jets and Bucs. He played in NFL Europe, and then in a German league, and now is giving the NFL one last shot after a disappointing showing at last year's super regional.

And even without his post-college heroics, or his West Point background, Villanueva's tale is an interesting one. The son of a Naval officer, he played only two years of high school football, both in Belguim, and started at left tackle as a junior, then became Army's top wideout as a senior, while also having taken snaps at left guard, tight end and defensive end over his four years. In 2009, he was the Black Knights' leader with five touchdown catches, and the tallest player in major college football.

As he said, at that point, his focus shifted to more serious battlefields. After his tryout with the Bengals, he went to Ranger school and Airborne school, and was deployed to Afghanistan in the spring of 2011. He went again in 2012, and again last year, all the while never losing his passion for football.

"For physical training sometimes, you play a little football," he said. "But I would say that, the best football experience the last four years was what we called HLZ football -- the Helicopter Landing Zone. The smaller copter we had in Zare (in Afghanistan), we had teams, and it used to get really competitive. You play on the rocks and the gravel, and you fall and you can get injured pretty badly. Sometimes there would be shooting while we were playing, and we'd have to get down on the ground and whatnot.

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"It was a really fun experience and, obviously, the game never changes. Whether you're playing in Afghanistan or in a game with thousands of people watching you, it's football."

Villanueva knows he's a longshot.

Yes, he's big and has the ability to play physical, and did play at a high level of college football. But he's also been out of the organized version of the game for an eternity -- while handling a much more important job -- and he's admittedly not the fleetest of foot.

That's one reason why he'd love to get into an NFL program, and get with a speed coach, and find out how quick he can get his massive frame going.

"I can run five miles pretty fast," he said. "But my 40-yard dash is not where it needs to be."

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And if it doesn't work out?

You might not be shocked to hear he'll be fine, either way. While the military has relaxed some of its standards for athletes wanting to pursue careers in professional sports, he doesn't have the freedom to bounce from minicamp to minicamp trying out, so he'll either sign a deal or he won't.

There's plenty more on his plate, to be sure, if that doesn't happen. Villanueva will be promoted to captain on May 1 and, if he doesn't make it to an NFL camp, he's set for a fourth tour of duty in Afghanistan in September.

After that, he has designs on pursuing his MBA, which would be the next step in a road he has had no regrets on traveling, even with the bright lights of the NFL serving as a powerful lure.

"The four years I've had in the Army have been the best four years you could ask for," he said. "The guys I served with ... above me and under me ... were phenomenal guys. They were good experiences that made me the man I am today. But now, I see this as a win-win situation. Obviously, I'm trying to get to a team and contribute. But if I can't, then I can't wait to get back to the Army and serve in the same manner that I have."

Like the rest of players here who aren't draft-eligible, Villanueva left here ready to wait on a phone call. He met with the Eagles -- remember Chip Kelly's saying, "bigger people beat up little people" -- after his workout, and hopes there are more talks like that one to come.

But even if this is it for his time in the game, the tallest guy at the Super Regional won't lack for reason to leave football with his head held high.

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