LATROBE, Pa. -- Alejandro Villanueva is painfully familiar with death.
Before making his way to the NFL, the Steelers starting left tackle Villanueva served three tours in Afghanistan as an Army Ranger, earning a Bronze Star for valor in the process. That is awarded for "either heroic achievement, heroic service, meritorious achievement, or meritorious service in a combat zone." Unfortunately, such a distinction comes with sacrifices, sadness and, yes, death along the way.
Now, as the Steelers mourn the death of receivers coach Darryl Drake and attempt to move on in Latrobe, Pa., Villanueva provides unique context for what exactly the team is feeling and how they can regroup and recover.
"They [these moments of loss] definitely unify the group when they do happen, maybe not for the right reasons, but they definitely have an impact on the morale of the unit," Villanueva told media members at Saint Vincent College, first sharing his thoughts from his perspective in the Army. "Sometimes it's vengeful: You want to go get the responsibles, the culprits. In this case, it was not one person doing it."
Drake, 62, died unexpectedly and of unknown causes, although the Westmoreland County Coroner declared nothing "suspicious" was involved. With this context, Villanueva noted the differences between his experiences in the armed forces and the team's current situation with Drake.
"The kids that die in battle are usually 18, 19 years old, so that's a little bit tougher to swallow when you look at their kids who they're never going to meet," Villanueva said. "It's part of the culture. It's part of the Army culture to deal with death. I think once you get over the deployments, once you can put it all in the rear-view mirror, then you do learn some very valuable lessons about death that make you appreciate life. Death is part of life. You cannot have life without death. It's something that, individually, everybody has to deal with at some point, because it does come to all of us."
He then took it a step further, explaining that it's not only different but dangerous to try to draw comparisons between the two.
"I don't want to put pressure and I don't want to, sort of, put my beliefs in my narrative on my teammates on how to deal with death," Villanueva said. "People have their own experiences ... [With] Afghanistan, Iraq, the war, the life of a solider is sometimes honored a lot more and sometimes glorified when they do die. That's a very dangerous and tough discussion to compare the two."