MISSOULA — Montana senior Angel Villanueva can’t be kept down.

The offensive lineman who started 29 consecutive games at one point has been dealt an unimaginable amount of adversity for someone who hasn’t even graduated college yet.

It’s been everything from unlucky injuries to self-inflicted unhealthy overeating to his toughness as a football player being questioned. None of that, though, can compare to his family’s apartment burning down.

“It’s been some of the biggest highs and the lowest lows of my life,” Villanueva said of his time at Montana prior to the Grizzlies’ game at Portland State at 3 p.m. MT Saturday.

“I think it’s given me so much perspective and appreciation for this game, for my teammates, for life and just for being a better person. I take every day to heart because I understand that tomorrow really isn’t given, nothing’s promised to you.”

Though he has experienced a life of unique hardships, Villanueva has refused to stay down. He’s relied on the base of those in Duarte, California, who helped raise him and began shaping the passive teenager into the person who will become the first in his family to graduate from college.

Then there’s those at Montana who’ve offered a wholesome development to mold Villanueva both on and off the football field. He’s found a hearty message in ‘DOLA,’ or Dominant Offensive Line Attitude, a motto that’s been preached at Montana since the 1980s. Villanueva has embraced DOLA as a life goal, not just something reserved for the field.

“I truly believe that DOLA is the attitude that you take when you’re doing anything,” Villanueva said. “It’s not just on the field. It’s how you are in the classroom, how you are when you’re talking to professors and in the same light how you talk to the janitor. It’s the aggressiveness and the willingness and the want to and what are you willing to do for the person next to you. That’s the type of attitude that I’ve developed in all facets of life.

“I think DOLA is really in my heart. I really truly believe that. I want to be DOLA. I want to embody what it means to be DOLA. I do everything in my power on a day-to-day basis to prove to myself, to prove to the other guys that this is what I want to be, this is who I am.”

Montana coach Bobby Hauck has gotten to see Villanueva’s rock-hard mentality over the past two years. Even in that short time, the smile on Villanueva’s face and determination in his heart have been hard to miss.

“I like guys that bring persistence,” Hauck said. “Obviously, that’s key to being consistent in life. Angel’s done a lot of hard work to battle back from injury, change himself physically.

“He’s got great attitude. He’s developed a toughness about him. And then just a real willingness to want to fight his way into the lineup. I think that’s a great example for everybody, especially the young guys.”

Pride and appreciation

Duarte, California, is close to Villanueva’s heart — literally. He has a tattoo that reads ‘Duarte’ and is buttressed by mountains on his chest right over his heart.

The town northeast of downtown Los Angeles is where Villanueva grew up as the oldest of four rowdy boys. Days were spent playing outside, but homework, chores and respect for his parents were ingrained in him in a tough household where he was challenged to live up to high standards.

Villanueva learned the values of hard work from his parents. By the time he woke up, his dad had left for his job working for Los Angeles County at 5 a.m. and wouldn’t return home until 7 p.m. Then there’s his mom, who’d work an accounting job five days a week and take on various jobs on the weekends to help the family make ends meet, especially important after their apartment burned down when Villanueva was a college freshman.

“Seeing the struggle with my parents and how hard they work and the type of people that they are outside of parenting was inspiring to me,” Villanueva said. “That’s why I want to make them proud and I want to graduate from this awesome university and why I want to be the best player out there and hold myself to the highest of standards. I want to be the best all-around person that I could be.”

Villanueva is looking to go into marketing when he becomes the first person in his immediate family to earn a college degree. It’s a path that appears to suit the outgoing, talkative and always smiling 6-foot-5 Villanueva.

He’ll strike up a conversation with anyone around him as a naturally curious inquisitor looking to get to know as many people as he can.

“I realized the mind is a powerful thing,” Villanueva said. “I love talking to people about their personal story, what they’ve been through, where they’re at in life, where they want to go in life. I think a lot of that gives me perspective of my own life. Even if I’m feeling down about myself, when I hear someone else’s story, I’m like, ‘Man, I’m really not going through that much to be feeling this crappy compared to this person.’”

Fellow offensive lineman Kordell Pillans recalls Villanueva being the first person to reach out to him on his recruiting trip, introducing him to everyone in the room. Tight end Colin Bingham put to use his high school Spanish lessons by sharing in conversations with Villanueva.

“Angel is one of the best dudes on the team,” Bingham said. “We’ve seen he’s probably one of the toughest guys on the team. Super-duper caring. Can’t say enough good things about the guy. He’s always asking how you’re doing, how’s the family doing. He’s always looking out for his buddies. I love that guy to death.”

Villanueva will also willingly share his story, especially when he gets the chance to return to Duarte and his high school. He’ll visit with former coaches and teachers, sharing with their players or students what he learned and how it helped him in hopes that it can aid others.

“I want to represent my community at the highest level possible,” Villanueva said. “I truly and wholeheartedly believe that the teachers, the faculty, the students, the people in that community gave me an opportunity to grow as a young man and gave me experiences that shaped me to who I am today.

“Because of it, I love Duarte. I just have an immense pride and appreciation for that place.”

Can't be soft

Villanueva came to a life-changing realization during the summer heading into his sophomore year of high school.

Having been bumped up to varsity football, he struggled to keep going during a conditioning day under the California summer sun. He thought he was about give up football, a sport he had just started the year before, because he was out of shape. When a coach got in his ear as he struggled with up-downs, he felt a switch flip.

“He started yelling at me, ‘Pick it up. Pick it up. You got to pick it up. You’re soft. You’re soft,’” Villanueva recalled. “I took offense to that and remember being really hurt about that because given the household that I grew up in, that’s not what I wanted to be. I didn’t want to be known as soft. I wanted to prove to myself that I was tough and can do something that’s hard and stick it through.”

Villanueva rededicated himself and competed in football, wrestling, and track and field throughout high school. He then earned a football scholarship to Montana.

In Missoula, Villanueva redshirted his first year but quickly worked his way into the lineup. He displayed his toughness by making 29 consecutive starts once he took the field, fighting through injuries to which he refused to succumb.

“Angel is a hardworking dude,” fellow senior Josh Sandry said. “He’s had his nicks and bruises, but every time that’s happened with him, he’s got a good attitude about it. He never gets down in the dumps. He’s a great teammate and a great friend.”

Villanueva had that 29-game streak end last season when he had what he called “the biggest wake-up call” of his football life. Out of shape, he worked to drop 40 pounds to get down to 300 pounds at the start of this season as he regained his starting job.

Key in accomplishing that transformation was the mindset that Villanueva couldn’t stand to let down his teammates.

“Watching him change himself and come around to it, he’s a guy I admire for that,” Hauck said. “It’s hard for people to change, and he’s done it.”

For those who called Villanueva soft, that’s not the person Hauck has seen on the O-line. He now has better mobility, he feels, and increased strength in the trenches, Hauck noted.

“It’s a real man’s game in there every play,” Hauck said. “There’s a lot of hand-to-hand combat. You have to have the right mindset to be able to do that. It’s not for the faint of the heart in there. Certainly, he doesn’t have that.”

Villanova could wax poetic about his goals for championships and playoffs if he wanted to. While those are important, they’re not the end all, be all for him.

There are more pressing issues to overcome to make that type of success become a reality. Villanueva is well versed in knowing that becoming what you want to become requires fighting with a dedicated approach to reach incremental goals on the road to recovery and hope.

“I want to know that I gave it my absolute all in all facets of the game to put my teammates in the best position,” Villanueva said. “I gave my all for them, and I hope that they understand that. That’s really the one true accomplishment — that I really gave them my all.

“I hope people see my story, or guys on the team see my story, and hopefully find a way to be inspired by it and take it to heart what it means to DOLA, what it means to embody that and what comes with it. That’s what I hope to accomplish. That’s my goals. That’s my dreams.”

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Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at frank.gogola@missoulian.com.

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