NFL Pro Bowler goes out of his way to give 'amazing gift' to families of fallen soldiers


As a former U.S. Army Ranger, Pittsburgh Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva knows what it means to sacrifice for his country.

He also knows the sacrifices made by other soldiers and their families.

Villanueva met with families of fallen soldiers Friday at the NFL’s Pro Bowl weekend at Disney World in Orlando. He was a featured speaker at a breakfast for those families who are part of TAPS — the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.

“This is, like, the biggest deal ever,” Johana Melbert told Stars and Stripes.

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Melbert — who lost her husband, Staff Sgt. Jose Melbert, in a motorcycle accident near Fort Lee, Virginia, in 2011 — and her two children were among 20 families who attended the breakfast, where Villanueva took pictures with them and signed autographs.

Melbert said her family learned in early December they would be attending the event.

Melbert said the family learned they were chosen for the trip in early December.

“That was an amazing early Christmas gift,” she said.

The 29-year-old Villanueva, a first team All-Pro this year, served three tours of duty in Afghanistan before joining the NFL. He won a Bronze Star for rescuing wounded soldiers under enemy fire in Afghanistan.

The NFL provided grants to TAPS, which is one of the league’s Salute to Service charitable partners, to make this weekend’s visit to the Pro Bowl weekend possible. The military families went on to spend the day at Disney World.

On Saturday, they watched the NFC team practice at the Wide World of Sports complex and had lunch with some of the players. They will attend the Pro Bowl on Sunday.


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This is the second year TAPS has sent families to the Pro Bowl.

“TAPS is grateful to the NFL for its longstanding commitment to the men and women of our armed forces,” Bonnie Carroll, TAPS founder and president, told Stars and Stripes. “For our families who have lost loved ones in military, the NFL has offered extraordinary experiences where they have had the opportunity to honor their fallen hero and cheer for their favorite teams.”

League officials said the NFL is proud to work with TAPS.,

“We hope that TAPS families invited to this year’s Pro Bowl Week festivities will create long-lasting memories together and enjoy everything Orlando has to offer,” Anna Isaacson , NFL senior vice president of social responsibility, told Stars and Stripes. “Celebrating the families of service members who sacrificed for this country is just one way to honor their legacy.”

Melbert said the Saints are her favorite team, and were her husband’s favorite team as well. She hopes to meet quarterback Drew Brees this weekend.

“I think he’s the best quarterback ever,” she said.

Melbert said the trip to the Pro Bowl has been special.

“You come here and you feel out of this world,” Melbert said. “They love you. They love your children. They do anything for you. It’s just amazing how these people, after a tragedy, they just want to lift us up, They want to show us that we’re not alone and we don’t have to be alone.”

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Dave is a lifelong sports fan who has been writing for The Wildcard since 2017. He has been a writer for more than 20 years for a variety of publications.
Dave has been writing about sports for The Wildcard since 2017. He's been a reporter and editor for over 20 years, covering everything from sports to financial news. In addition to writing for The Wildcard, Dave has covered mutual funds for Pensions and Investments, meetings and conventions, money market funds, personal finance, associations, and he currently covers financial regulations and the energy sector for Macallan Communications. He has won awards for both news and sports reporting.
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