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Army Ranger & NFL Player Alejandro Villanueva is Now a ‘Call of Duty’ Star

"Call of Duty: WWII" is out today and, after a run of increasingly futuristic and unrealistic versions, returns the game to its World War II roots and is available for Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC.

Former West Point football star, Army Ranger and current Pittsburgh Steeler Alejandro Villanueva got a chance to play a character in the new game. The Steelers have a bye week, so he had a chance to talk to us about his generation’s love of video games, his military service and his football career.

Did you play Call of Duty growing up?

So I didn’t play Call of Duty growing up. I played it once I got to West Point and some players had the system in the barracks. Obviously, once I got into the Army, I played a lot just because it’s a game that is very fun to play with everybody in your unit.

I think a lot of old people don’t know how big Call of Duty is with active duty service members.

I would say it’s a generational thing. Millennials grew up playing video games, it was part of their daily lives, for some people more than others. I played some video games, but I wasn’t really intense about it. But when you start with these kids coming out of high school and going into the service, you see that all some of them do is play video games.

It’s not something negative. A lot of times older generations tend to look down on the fact that the kids like to play video games, but in reality it’s unavoidable as watching television. In the service, whether you’re deployed or you’re back in the States, it’s something that people love to do. All ranks, all ages, it’s just a really fun pastime.

Alejandro Villanueva gets ready for his motion capture session for “Call of Duty: WWII”

So I’m sure there are guys you served with who are going to be way more impressed that you’re in a Call of Duty game than that you’ve played in the NFL.

Especially the ones that I used to play Call of Duty with.

How did you get to be in a Call of Duty game?

Activision contacted me in the offseason. They came up with an idea of making me into a character and it’s something that I was able to make happen this past offseason.

Pittsburgh Steelers players Le’Veon Bell and Alejandro Villanueva in their motion capture suits at Sledgehammer Games.

What’s your role in "Call of Duty: WWII"? I know that it’s you and Le’Veon Bell, your teammate from the Steelers. What happens with you guys in the game?

This game specifically is trying to incorporate a more realistic approach. It’s simulated combat scenarios. They have a headquarters or forward operating base in Europe, where they welcome the crews, they train them, and then they send them into the front lines.

For a new game experience, one of the things that you have to get used to is shooting the weapons. Once you have the controls, know how to press fire, how to reload your weapon and all of that stuff. I played an instructor who runs the range, sort of coaching you and teaching you how to use your weapon before you go out and play the game.

With Call of Duty the past couple of years, there’s been a lot of futuristic stuff and outer space. Some people loved it, a lot more people were freaked out by it. You’ve had a chance to play WWII, I would imagine, at this point, so what’s this game like compared to other versions of Call of Duty?

That’s a great point about the futuristic sort of thing that they mixed in. I think to some degree those elements are very creative and they let you use your imagination in how you play the game. Call of Duty: WWII is one of those back-to-basics games and it’s great that they picked World War II.

This game is one of those games that’s going to take you back to everything that you love about Call of Duty, everything that is fun about smaller maps, a lot of encounters, being able to work with your team, essentially, as you maneuver and being able to find ambush sites, find cover and concealment that is easy to remember, from the time you die to the time you respawn and you’re playing again.

I am a fan of this type of video game, which is the sort of fast, realistic, challenging, teamwork-oriented type of video game. And I think everybody is going to really enjoy it and the game is going to be a hit, no doubt.

We’ve should’ve asked Alejandro if those MoCap dots on your face are as uncomfortable as they look.

You’re probably the only guy in the world who can answer this next question. What’s the culture of video games in an NFL locker room compared to the culture of video games in the military?

It’s the absolute same. It’s not a cultural thing in terms of sports or the military. I think it’s just a cultural sort of thing, period. It’s the same cultural fact that most millennials are not going to get cable. They’re just going to watch Netflix. Millennials are going to play video games regardless of what else they’re dong.

It is a pastime that we love and it’s something that we just like to do. It’s a very entertaining way of bonding with people, of challenging, of stimulating your brain, of solving problems. You see things spatially move in your head. It’s what my generation likes to do and what I grew up doing.

Whether you’re in the NFL, you’re corporate America, or you’re in the military, you’re going to play video games. And as soon as you bring up Call of Duty, there’s always going to be someone who says, I’m better than you at Call of Duty. It’s going to come up in the conversation regardless of who you are and where you come from. What I think is really cool about the video game world is the fact that it unites people under the same common challenge.

When you have games such as "Call of Duty: World War II" that are going to be sold everywhere, expanded, marketed, and reach so many people, then you’re going to have a gigantic subculture that’s very familiar with the game. And they’re going to want to know the maps, the weapons, the challenges.

Now that it’s so easy to connect and play each other, then it’s going to become more of a thing. You know, “I can beat you at 'Call of Duty: World War II.'” “Oh, no, you can’t.” “Oh, yes, I can.” So I think it’s really cool. You can’t fight against the fact that people are liking video games more. You just have to enjoy it. And in this case, the game is so much fun that it is a pleasure to see this culture develop in our society.

Alejandro poses with his video-game self at a “Call of Duty: WWII” event.

Older people who haven’t grown up play video games just don’t seem to get that part of it.

Yeah, for sure. If you want to become a solid Call of Duty player, then you have to go back to Nintendo and you go back to old video games so that you can develop your skills. Now, the culmination of all these things is Call of Duty.

If you’re late to the game and you try to play somebody in Call of Duty, then you obviously find it very challenging. So I see how older generations kind of hate on younger generations for having skills.

6-foot 9-inch Alejandro Villanueva played wide receiver and on both the offensive and defensive lines at Army.

The fact that you served in the Army before you became an NFL player is an amazing one. Give our readers who don’t know the story some background.

The short story is that I went to West Point, I served, and then after my time was done I tried out for the NFL. That’s kind of the short version of it.

While you were serving, did you think about going back and playing in the NFL? Was it something you were planning to do all along or was it just something you just sort of came to after you got out of the Army?

No. I wanted to serve in the military as long as I had an active role where I felt that was doing something that I could really get behind. If you’re serving for 10th Mountain Division as a platoon leader, I mean there’s nothing on your mind other than being a platoon leader for 10th Mountain. There really isn’t. It was the most amazing job that anybody could have. There’s nothing that can compare to being a platoon leader in Kandahar Province for 10th Mountain Division.

After I got with that, I said, what is the next best job that I could do? Obviously the war was sort of ending in Afghanistan with no more mass deployments of troops. And then I had to fight really hard just to find what the next best thing was going to be.

I had a brief stint with the Bears. It didn’t work out. And then I said, maybe I can do the Ranger Regiment thing. But it was very challenging. I didn’t know if I could do it, I don’t know if I was made up of all the values and physical criteria before my tryout. Once I got in, there was nothing else in the world that I wanted to do other than being a platoon leader in Ranger Regiment. That’s even better than being a platoon leader in 10th Mountain.

Villanueva was one giant soldier.

In the military, all the jobs come to an end after three years and then you have to look for an assignment in the context of what the Army needs. And for me the Army needs was too vague for me. They had no predictability or no specific job that I saw myself doing.

If I was going to be a company commander in 1st Cav, doing inventories for 12 months, I really wasn’t feeling that aspect. Just like many officers do, I just decided to look for all options. I always thought that I just was somebody who could compete in the field and I thought that maybe the NFL could develop me.

Obviously, it’s a very long story of how ultimately I got to play for the Steelers. But I decided to give the NFL another shot.

After working his way up from the practice squad, Offensive Tackle Alejandro Villanueva was rewarded with a 4-year, $24 million contract before the 2017 season.

You’re playing with guys who, for the most part, got identified as great football players when they’re 7 or 8 years old and all they’ve thought about their entire lives is football. You’re unique because you did something else and you come into the locker room with all this real world experience, with a bunch of younger guys who may not have seen as much of the world as you have. Does that automatically put you in a leadership role? What’s the relationship like? I’m sure they’re all good guys, but you have very different life experiences.

Yeah. I would say the NFL is obviously more about performance. So the good performers are always going to have more responsibility. When you have more responsibility, then I think you automatically get put into the leader category. I came into the locker room as a 26-year-old combat veteran. I was on the practice squad, so I was the bottom of the barrel. I had zero leadership role. Expectations were nothing. I was essentially a tackling dummy for a year. When you’re playing under those circumstances, you’re not looking to be a leader at all.

Obviously, when you have players that are really good performers and they’re also really good leaders, then it’s those guys that everybody is going to look up to. In my situation, Maurkice Pouncey is filling that role admirably. ‘m more of a guy that’s trying to get better every single day, more of a guy that’s trying to strap up my sword for the battle, if you want to use a military analogy in this sort of scenario.

Everybody comes from very different backgrounds. I come from a military background, but at the same time there’s kids that come from very distinct backgrounds that teach me a lot, that humble me a lot every single day, and that I learned from just as much as they learned from me. That’s one of the good things about the NFL and the NFL locker room.

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