Staying Power

The specter of Jim Haslett has loomed over Chris Villarrial from the day he joined the Buffalo Bills in March.

Villarrial at Bills 2004 training camp

Villarrial at Bills 2004 training camp near Rochester, N.Y.

It’s no ghostly manifestation Villarrial encounters every time he enters the team’s headquarters in Orchard Park, N.Y., but a four-by-six-foot photograph of Haslett in uniform, displayed on a wall alongside images of other greats in franchise history.

The photo serves as a constant reminder to Villarrial of the lofty standard set by his fellow IUP alumnus, who spent eight seasons in the NFL as a linebacker, earned Associated Press Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in 1979, and was selected to Buffalo’s Silver Anniversary team in 1984.

Of course, Villarrial has surpassed the current New Orleans Saints head coach by one measure, eclipsing Haslett’s record for the most NFL seasons played by an IUP graduate. The 6-foot-3, 318-pound guard has logged nine years in the league, a remarkable achievement in a profession where careers are as fleeting as a J.Lo marriage.

“I guess you can attribute it to a lot of hard work and a lot of luck—staying healthy, staying injury free,” says Villarrial, who has also appeared in more games (116 entering the 2004 season) than any other IUP grad. “The average NFL career’s about three years. So to be in my ninth season is a big accomplishment.”

Villarrial still shakes his head at the wonder of it all—how an unheralded player from a Division II school found job security in a league where so many others found only pink slips.

“You know, when I first came to IUP, I just wanted the opportunity to get on the field and see what I could do,” Villarrial says. “Same with the NFL. I made the Bears the first year, [right guard] Todd Burger went down with an injury, and I ended up starting eight games. Then I became a full-time starter the following year. I’ve still got to pinch myself every now and then when I run out there. I’m living a dream is how I look at it.”

Jaws dropped when he made like Popeye on a spinach binge...

It’s a dream he once considered beyond his reach. Granted, Villarrial refined his skills at IUP to such a degree that All-America accolades came his way as a junior and senior. But it wasn’t until after he’d played his final down for the Indians that Villarrial allowed himself to believe that his career path might lead to the NFL.

“Some teams started talking to me and I started getting some tryouts, some workouts,” he says. “And then I got invited to the NFL Combine. I think when that happened I was kind of like, Wow, this could really happen.” 

Villarrial made the most of his opportunity at the Combine, a pre-draft gathering of prospects, coaches, and scouts held at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis. Jaws dropped when he made like Popeye on a spinach binge and bench-pressed 225 pounds thirty-six times, a feat no other player could match.

The Bears took note and selected Villarrial in the fifth round of the 1996 draft. Though his duties were initially restricted to special teams, he still managed to make an eye-opening first impression in the season opener by manhandling a Dallas Cowboys All-Pro every bit as celebrated as Villarrial was anonymous.

“I blocked Deion Sanders. That’s my first NFL moment,” he says, relishing the recollection. “We went out for a return, Deion was coming down, and I blocked him. To hit him and stand him up and drive him back, that was a great feeling.”

Four weeks later, Villarrial was starting. Burger couldn’t dress for a game against Oakland, so coach Dave Wannstedt called on the rookie to fill the breach.

“They came to me on a Saturday morning and told me I was starting Sunday. I didn’t get much sleep that night,” Villarrial says. “I was going against [All-Pro defensive tackle] Chester McGlockton. I just went out and played as hard as I could. What I remember is from the first snap of the game it was like I blinked my eyes and the play was over. That’s how fast everything was.”

There were times during his rookie year when Villarrial feared he was in over his head, convinced he’d never see a second NFL season, much less a ninth. He felt as if he were teetering on a tightrope, one misstep from disaster.

“Every time you’d screw up, every time you’d mess up a block and the guy would get hit in the backfield, you’d think, Oh, boy, this is it, I’m gone,” Villarrial says. “There was always doubt in the back of your mind.”

Chris Villarrial and his wife, Kristen

Villarrial and his wife, Kristen Hedling Villarrial ’95, at the retirement of his IUP jersey in 2000

Villarrial weathered those early trials and soon established himself as a fixture on the Bears’ offensive line. He started 109 games, including forty-nine in succession at one point, during his eight seasons in Chicago. The Bears wallowed in mediocrity all the while, with one glorious exception: They finished 13-3 in 2001, won the NFC Central Division championship for the first time in eleven years, and advanced to the playoffs.

“That’s my only winning season in the NFL,” Villarrial says. “That was probably the biggest highlight of my career. I made third-team All-Pro that year, too. I’m not a guy that talks a lot or is flashy, but to be recognized for that was kind of a big deal for me.”

After two more seasons in Chicago—the Bears had since reverted to their losing ways—Villarrial resolved to seek out greener pastures and signed a free-agent contract with the Bills. A team, coincidentally, run by two IUP grads: president-general manager Tom Donahoe ‘69 and assistant general manager Tom Modrak ’65.

“Being an IUP alumnus, you feel like you don’t want to let them down,” Villarrial says. “So there’s a little added pressure.”

Living up to the standard set by another IUP product only increases the burden. The specter of Jim Haslett has loomed over Villarrial since the day he joined the Bills and first caught a glimpse of that oversized photograph on the wall.

But now Chris Villarrial can say he’s eclipsed Haslett in at least one respect: He has played more seasons in the NFL. And that, by any measure, is an achievement worth celebrating.

IUP grads in the NFL through the 2003 season

   Position Years Games 
 Chris Villarrial, 1996-
Chicago Bears
G 8 116 
Jim Haslett, 1979-85, 1987
Buffalo Bills, New York Jets
 
LB 8 93
John Jones, 2000-
Baltimore Ravens 
TE 4 49
Dave Smith, 1970-73
Pittsburgh Steelers, Houston Oilers, Kansas City Chiefs 
WR 4 39
Leander Jordan, 2000-
Carolina Panthers, Jacksonville Jaguars 
G 4 19
Harp Vaughn, 1933-34
Pittsburgh Steelers 
HB-QB 2 19
Bret Shugarts, 1987
Pittsburgh Steelers
 
DE 1 2
Jim Angelo, 1987
Philadelphia Eagles
 
G 1 1
Ben Lawrence, 1987
Pittsburgh Steelers 
G 1 1