MISSOULA — Angel Villanueva has always been a big kid.
Just a sophomore, the 6-foot-5, 324-pound starting left guard is one of the tallest players on the Griz roster. He’s also the heaviest — weighing more than the two lightest players on the roster combined.
Fortunately in college football, being big isn’t a bad thing. But in Pop Warner, there are weight restrictions.
“I was too big,” Villanueva said with a smile on his face. “I was a little bit too big. I couldn’t lose the weight. It was too much weight for me to lose. It ended up being that I wasn’t allowed to play. It just wasn’t fair. That’s how it is sometimes.”
Because Villanueva was too big to play in middle school, his first snaps came during his freshman season of high school. He blossomed so fast that he was named captain for his sophomore season. By the time his senior season rolled around, Villanueva tore up defenses and was voted “Most Valuable Lineman” after making 95 pancake blocks.
Villanueva committed to Montana his senior year during wrestling season.
“I wasn’t too big on the recruiting charts, but one day I went to school and I got a call,” Villanueva said. “I was getting recruited by Northern Arizona. They called me up after a wrestling tournament and they said, ‘Hey, we’re gonna offer you.’ My mom broke down crying and I thought that was it. I thought, ‘All right. Northern Arizona it is.’ ”
A few days later, an offer from Sacramento State came in. And a few days after that came the offer from Montana.
“I looked into the options and took a trip here and I couldn't help but say yes to this place,” Villanueva said. “Just the environment, the team, the tradition it has here, just everything that comes with Montana, I wanted to be a part of and I was lucky and blessed to receive some money to play here. There was no reason to say no to it."
Villanueva graduated from Duarte High School in Duarte, California, in the spring of 2015 and came to Missoula a short while later to begin his true freshman season.
When he initially arrived in Missoula, Villanueva was the biggest he’d ever been — more than 340 pounds and up 55 pounds from his high school wrestling weight.
“After wrestling season, I just started eating and eating and eating,” Villanueva said. “I didn’t care what I ate, so coming in, I was a bowling ball. I had to change my eating ways.”
One of the reasons Villanueva came to Missoula in the first place was to show his three younger brothers — Beni, Andy and Ereq — and other kids from his community that anything is possible.
“My family, they’re my biggest motivation in my life,” Villanueva said. “Just everything that they've been through, all I want to do is be able to create a path for my brothers to understand that they can do it and make my parents proud.
“Being from the area that I’m from, it always received a lot of bad talk to it. I wanted to change the environment that I was in and inspire kids at a young age to let them know that it doesn't matter where you come from or who you are, you can make it as long as you're willing to put in the work and sacrifice certain things.”
One of the biggest forms of adversity for Villanueva’s family came during his true freshman season, just four months into the school year.
It was Nov. 10, 2015, his younger brother Ereq’s 15th birthday.
His family went out for a birthday dinner and when they came back, they lit a fire in the fireplace.
“They called me up and said, ‘Hey, just want to let you know, the house burned down,’ ” Villanueva recalled. “I’m sitting there kind of confused and nervous at the same time trying to figure out what happened.”
Villanueva said that his family lived in an apartment in a decent-sized house with a chimney running through the middle of it.
“(The chimney) caught fire at the top and leaned over into the house,” Villanueva said.
His family lost everything in the fire. They had to start over from scratch.
“It’s hard to hear your mom cry on the phone,” Villanueva said. “It’s hard to hear your little brothers questioning what are they gonna do next, where are they gonna sleep, what are they gonna eat? It was heartbreaking. I spent a few nights just kinda bawling my eyes out when I took time to pray about it. It was overwhelming, just the situation itself because I mean, there’s a lot of rules with the NCAA, and there wasn’t much I could do. … It got to the point where I was stressing because I couldn’t even tweet about trying to help my family.”
Villanueva said he and his family was eventually was given the go-ahead by the NCAA to start raising money to rebuild what they lost.
And the support was overwhelming.
“It was incredible,” Villanueva said. “The community support, it just made me that much more grateful. There’s no words to really describe the feeling. The Griz community helped raise enough money to get started in a new place and my parents couldn’t have been more grateful for it. I couldn’t have been more grateful for it. It just kind of solidified me being here and being grateful for the opportunity to play here.”
Offensive line coach Chad Germer remembers those days too.
“He had a great support system here of teammates that rallied to him and made it as helpful as they possibly could be in a horrible situation,” Germer said. “The fact that he had a pretty good network of friends and support here in Missoula and in the state made it easier on him."
"Not that I can completely relate, but definitely a helpless feeling to say the least."
Villanueva uses the support as a motivator heading into his sophomore year as a starting offensive lineman. And he’s excited to get the season started.
“I just wanna see what we can really do,” Villanueva said. “And how we can bring this team to new heights and new successes that we haven't seen before.”