LATROBE, Pa. — When Alejandro Villanueva isn’t in his blocking stance, he might be holding a tray full of food or standing on a weight scale.
The magic number is 335, and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Pro Bowl tackle is five pounds away. Getting there by Week 1 will leave him in a constant state of discomfort.
“It’s terrible,” the 6-foot-9 Villanueva said about his weight-gain process. “I would say it’s harder than losing weight because you feel gross.”
But here’s the problem: He simply doesn’t feel right if he’s not at 335, and the stresses of the season suppress his eating. Villanueva estimates he’s played at as low as 295 pounds in the past due to long hours of game prep and the all-consuming desire to perform better next week.
Hitting a high number in August helps offset the inevitable dip, and Villanueva has learned to manage the in-season process better, finishing last season somewhere in the 315-320 range. Regardless, he’ll keep reaching for plates that might not actually aid production.
“I’m self-conscious about my weight, so I feel I need to be at 335,” Villanueva said. “If I feel I’m too light, I feel I’ll get lifted off the ground. With a solid 335, I can take on bull-rushes. But in reality, everything I just told you is not scientifically proven whatsoever and might have absolutely no effect on the game. It’s just a matter of confidence.”
Every morning, Villanueva pounds five to six waters — former Eagles coach Chip Kelly taught him body cells need water to grow — then eats massive breakfasts and lunches, weighing himself in between each session.
He doesn’t count calories or even pick his food. He just downs what’s in front of him, and the Steelers’ cafeteria makes that easy, providing an assortment of grass-fed beef, fish, carb sources and vegetables.
“In the military, you go down the line and just take what they have. There’s no negotiation,” said Villanueva, a former Army Ranger before turning his attention to the NFL. “If I’m stable at a weight and need to add more pounds, I will go back for more until I feel I’m stuffing myself.”
That process gets crazy at times. Villanueva and guard David DeCastro once had an eat-off, testing who could consume the most baked ziti during a one-hour dinner setting. They weighed themselves after, DeCastro said, and Villanueva had gained nine pounds. DeCastro wasn’t far behind.
Though DeCastro, a seven-year veteran, confidently maintains a 320-pound playing weight, he understands the big-man struggle.
“As an offensive lineman, you always have a little bit of a body dysmorphia like a bodybuilder would,” DeCastro said. “You can look strong and big but you’re always trying to get to a certain point, and if you’re not at that you start questioning yourself. It’s just part of the routine.”
What makes Villanueva a good player isn’t weight, DeCastro says. It’s smarts. He picks up football concepts quickly. And even Villanueva admits a 275-pound tackle with good technique can thrive in today’s quickness-above-all game.
But that won’t protect him from the “stressful cycle” of 17 NFL weeks as Villanueva predicts he’ll drop a pound following each game.
The new maintenance goal: Don’t drop below 320 pounds during the season. Sometimes that means eating so much that “I’ll stay up all night and my stomach gets shut,” knowing he won’t be right until Maurkice Pouncey’s Thursday night linemen parties offering ribs, steaks and potatoes.
If the late-week eating doesn’t help, Villanueva’s got a hairy backup plan.
“I shave my beard, and since food gets stuck in my beard, that (extra) usually gives me a boost around the December timeframe,” he said.