In delivering the principal address at Saint Vincent College’s 173rd spring commencement on Saturday, May 11, Alejandro Villanueva, a decorated Army Ranger, noted humanitarian and Pro Bowl offensive lineman for the Pittsburgh Steelers, recounted to 335 grads how keeping a collection of mental notes and observations from his many experiences, along with giving without hesitation and continually expressing thanks, have been the major factors in his success and happiness.
“To me,” he said, “life is like reading a tough book. As you read it, sometimes you’ll read a page or paragraph where you have to stop and ask yourself, ‘what in the world did I just read?’ Similarly, I think we all try to make sense of life as best we can, and over time, it becomes a collection of chapters and anecdotes that ultimately come together to shape our outlook on life.”
Since English was not his first language, Villanueva explained, he often had difficulty in school with reading comprehension. To better understand what he was reading, he would summarize each page into a sentence to help better understand and connect ideas and this has helped shape the way he approaches life.
“These sentences in real life are nothing more than life lessons,” he said, and went on to share some of the more impactful notes that he gathered throughout his life.
His first, and most memorable, mental note came from his time during Army Ranger training school in the mountains of Georgia during a record-breaking cold spell. The trainees spent two five-day spans in the wilderness marching with their equipment and were pushed beyond the point of exhaustion.
“It was pretty wild to watch your body wrestle with being cold, sleepy and hungry,” said Villanueva. “I found out that cold is by far the most debilitating weakness of the mind, followed by sleepiness and finally hunger.”
The trainees were afforded brief periods of rest throughout the mountain patrol, and during these short respites, Villanueva experienced something that he had never felt possible.
“During this rest, our eyes would shut, and we would quickly go into a very deep sleep,” he recalled. “We were so tired that we would actually dream that we were sleeping and dreaming, experiencing dreams inside of dreams.”
After five days in the mountains, the troops had one full day of rest at base camp, where they were afforded the opportunity of eating a hot meal and sleeping in a warm bed before returning to the wilderness for five more days. Three months later, after graduating from the United States Military Academy at West Point, Villanueva reflected back on his trying time in the mountains and gleaned an important lesson.
“As long as I’m warm, fed and have slept a couple hours,” he said, “there’s absolutely nothing in the world that I can possibly complain about.”
After graduating from West Point, Villanueva saw three tours of duty as an Army Ranger in Afghanistan from 2010–13, during which he earned a number of awards and accolades, including a Bronze Star Medal for valor for rescuing wounded soldiers from enemy fire. Upon returning from his last tour, his passion for football remained and he embarked on a professional career, signing with the Steelers in 2014. It was early in his National Football League tenure when he made his next important discovery.
“I’m not sure of the exact moment,” he said, “and I can’t recall being in a specific place, but I realized that in such a competitive environment where egos, jealousy and envy are the three most common things you breathe in the air, you’re really only competing with yourself. There is a saying in the NFL that the day you sign your contract is the happiest and saddest day of your career. You think you’re happy to achieve this milestone, but all of a sudden, when you look around, you realize that the thing you’ve fought so hard for does not change any of the things you expect it to change.”
He offered that this is a microcosm of today’s society, saying that many of the challenges we face “not only stem from our competitive nature, but also from our inability to see that our lives, though interconnected, are definitely different from one another… The person you think is yourself exists only in you. Every other person you meet in life creates another version of you, and with every person that you meet, you create a version of them in your head that is always different from who they really are.”
Over the course of his football career, Villanueva has become known as one of the most charitable players in the NFL, as he frequently gives back to his fellow veterans and service members, as well as to the causes of the less fortunate along with police and first responders. Through his many charitable acts, he established a third mental note.
“As hard and difficult as it may seem,” he said, “I don’t think anyone here will not find satisfaction in giving back to others. Giving without recognition is the most fulfilling. Giving to a person that is harder to like is the most rewarding. Giving without hesitation is the most authentic. Never be ashamed to reach out for help in times of need – only be ashamed if you do not do more for others. Our strength and skills individually are meaningless. Our cooperation and trust in one another is what made us successful as a species.”