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Soldier gave up football to serve in Army

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CNY/NNY/S. Tier: Soldier gave up football to serve in Army
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It's a dream of just about every Syracuse Orange football player who is lacing them up this week on Fort Drum, but an NFL career was also the dream of a man who decided to drop the cleats and pick up a rifle, even though a pro football career was possible. Our Brian Dwyer sat down with the now Fort Drum soldier who still has hopes, with some help from the Orange, the NFL will call again.

FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- A college football training camp is nothing new to Fort Drum soldier Alejandro Villanueva. The now 23-year-old had the size colleges drool over and it earned him a plethora of scholarship offers.

"A kid that's 275, 6'7”, he's going to be highly recruited," he said.

But with two dreams, one to play football and the other to lead a combat platoon in the military, there was only one choice: To play at West Point for Army.

"I always wanted to be infantry," Villanueva said. "I wanted to be boots on the ground with the ultimate experience of leadership. West Point offered me the fastest route to accomplish my goals."

But at the same time, Villanueva was standing out on the field. On a team known for running the football, he had over 500 yards receiving and five touchdowns his senior year.

After graduating, the NFL's Cincinnati Bengals came calling. He was invited to tryout at the team's minicamp.

"Knowing that I could compete and I could catch passes over people that played in the SEC and people that won national championships," he said of that experience. "It was really neat to see all my effort paid off at the end of the day."

But that dream was short lived. Shortly after arriving at the camp, Villanueva got a different call and had to leave.

"The Army's plans were different for me," he said of that call. "I had to hang up the cleats and pick up the rifle."

Villanueva needed to go to training schools and get ready to deploy to Afghanistan and he was going to be there for a year.

"The Army doesn't care whether you play football, basketball, lacrosse," he said. "You have an assignment and you have people who are going to be depending on you."

And believe it or not, Villanueva says serving with those people was everything he dreamed it would be.

"It was absolutely the best experience of my life," he said. "I wish I could do it again."

Villanueva even got a tryout with the Chicago Bears upon his return to the country, but the tour left him out of proper football shape and it didn't work out. His story has absolutely amazed the guys in Orange hoping to live the NFL dream as well.

"That would hurt if it was me, but it's good that he was able to do that and put the country first and that's a good thing," Orange junior RB Prince-Tyson Gulley said.

"You've got the chance to play football and do what you love, but he chose to protect our country. I respect it 100 percent," junior DT Zian Jones said.

In fact, everyone with the Orange respect it so much, the team has invited Villanueva to take part in its pro-day next year to show scouts what he can still do.

"If the opportunity arises, then it's great. If it doesn't, I've already accomplished my dream job, which is to be a platoon leader in combat," Villanueva said about the chance.

Villanueva says the most challenging part of trying to get back into football will be getting into the kind of shape you need to be successful and getting the time to do it.

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