Commentary

Villanueva saw NFL as a path to greater opportunity

Updated: October 13, 2008, 1:10 PM ET
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

El Kickador does not hold grudges. He never understood that nickname, nor why they played bullfighting music every time he walked onto the field at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. But any ink is good ink, Danny Villanueva used to say, so he mugged for the mandatory training camp photo, the one in which he sits on a blocking dummy, sombrero on his head, guitar in his hands.

"I realized very fast that I was different," Villanueva said.

"We had a black bus and we had a white bus in those days; we were segregated. [A teammate] came out and announced, 'All black guys get on that bus, white guys get on that bus, and Danny, you take a cab.' I understood I was neither fish nor fowl."

Danny Villanueva
Getty ImagesDanny Villanueva, shown kicking for the Los Angeles Rams against the New York Giants in 1961 at Yankee Stadium. Villanueva went on to a successful business career.

Villanueva, one of the NFL's first kickers of Hispanic descent, is still a little different. He is 70 years old but wakes up before dawn and heads to work. His ear was pressed against the phone for most of Thursday in the middle of the Wall Street collapse. Besides sitting on a number of executive boards, Villanueva and his son, Danny Jr., are partial owners of Rustic Canyon/Fontis Partners, a Los Angeles-based investment firm.

People are panicking, Villanueva says. And business decisions never should be made in panic and anger.

"Right now," he said, "you've got to try to think like a coach and a quarterback. Keep your cool, analyze the situation, take calculated risks but make sure they're well thought out."

Calm would be a good way to describe the straightaway kicker from New Mexico State. But Villanueva had his moments. He was a 22-year-old ex-football player in 1960, set on changing the world through teaching. One day, he was conducting class at Las Cruces High School when a young girl walked in and told him that Mr. Elroy Hirsch was on the phone for him.

Villanueva grew up idolizing Crazy Legs Hirsch, a former receiver and running back for the Los Angeles Rams who had taken a position in the club's front office. The call had to be a prank, he thought, or some kind of new-teacher hazing.

"Please tell Mr. Hirsch I'm busy right now," Villanueva told the messenger.

The vice principal finally intervened and said he'd better take the call because the Rams were in fact calling him. Villanueva was giddy; he never thought he'd make it to the NFL. But Rams scout Chuck Benedict had seen a New Mexico State game to watch one of Villanueva's teammates, Pervis Atkins, and saw Villanueva kick a 49-yard field goal. So Benedict wrote Villanueva's name down in a little book.

And one day in a meeting, when the Rams were discussing possible kickers, Benedict, according to Villanueva, said, "I know this little, fat Mexican kicker I saw."

Villanueva spent eight years in the NFL in Los Angeles and Dallas, and became lifelong friends with Benedict.

He booted the winning field goal against Washington in 1966 that helped put the Cowboys in their first playoffs. He held the Rams' single-season record for punt average (45.5) for 45 years.

On New Year's Eve in 1967, Villanueva and his Cowboys teammates traveled to Lambeau Field for the NFL Championship Game in minus-48-degree temperature with windchill. The game, which later was known as the Ice Bowl, ended up being Villanueva's last.

It was a wild scene, from the players who wrapped Saran Wrap around their feet to the tough guys who wore short sleeves to the smoky cloud of frozen breaths in the stands. A line formed in front of the Cowboys' sideline heater. Kickers, of course, went last.

When it was over, Villanueva tossed his parka and shoes into a bag instead of leaving them in the locker room. He knew he was tired and finished with football. He was 29.

For years, he'd been juggling two careers, flying red-eyes to do TV work in Los Angeles. Villanueva used to get teased by his teammates because he lived on the freebies circuit doing more than 200 public appearances a year.

He did it all, mostly, for his mom.

"My mom used to tell me we should be deeply grateful to this country that took us in," said Villanueva, the ninth of 12 children born to Mexican immigrants. "And no matter how hard I worked, I wouldn't be able to repay this country. But I tried very hard to do what I couldn't do."

He earned just $5,500 in his first season with the Rams, and his biggest football paycheck was $18,000. The Rams once told him their practice was not to divulge salaries. Villanueva's response was, "I'm glad, because I'm as ashamed of it as you are."

But he saw the NFL as a platform to bigger things.

He was a founder of the Univision and Telemundo Spanish-language television networks, and became a multi-millionaire. And now, his worries turn to the dwindling numbers of Hispanic males who attend college. Villanueva has donated millions to New Mexico State, and set up a scholarship at his alma mater to help students "who have proven to be potential leaders and have financial need."

Villanueva calls the Hispanic dropout rate "a train wreck coming at us."

Kind of like the economy. Villanueva says tough times are ahead, and they won't end anytime soon. But much like the young, square-toed kicker who packed away his shoes at 29, Villanueva seems confident as he stares down the future.

"I found it ironic that we were trained from early on to compete, to be competitors in athletic competition," he said. "And yet I found that athletes hang on after they've passed their prime because they're too afraid to go out in the world and compete. I was anxious to do that. I was anxious to see if I could compete outside of football."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.