Blast From The Past

by Sam Just

Blast from the Past as the Rapid City Marshals Sign Brian Villanueva 

For fans of the last iteration of the Arena Football League, the name Brian Villanueva should bring back fond memories of the best parts of the AFL. The 6’4 245 pound gunslinger made a name for himself with the Iowa Barnstormers back in the early 2000s, but that wasn’t where his career began originally. 

From 2002 to 2005 Villanueva bounced around trying to find a home to establish himself. In 2005 His unique size at the QB position caught an Arkansas Twisters coach's attention. He had attended this work out not to perform but simply to bring a teammate. His resume, and ability to perform in drills designed to simulate pocket presence when under pressure sealed the deal and he would go on to play his AF2 rookie year as the backup. 

Following his first season that ended 5-11 with  Villanueva the backup, the training wheels came off. Villanueva would lead the Twisters to an unprecedented run where nearly every year they were in playoff contention. During this stretch Arkansas produced a 44-20 record but a 2-4 playoff record. Villanueva would finish out 2008 with the Green Bay Blizzard. 

As the starter for Iowa in 2009 he started 15 games and managed to throw the ball 481 times, scoring 76 times total. This included a 9 touchdown game. Thank you for maintaining stats from the AFL. 

Moving On Up

This was of course during the one-year hiatus for the AFL, and in 2010 the former AF2 Barnstormers moved up to the AFL along with several other teams. With this Villanueva followed them. He would stick with Iowa through the 2011 season but was relegated to a backup role. He would add 4 touchdowns to his resume ending his time with Iowa having been responsible for 80 total touchdowns. During this time he built a name for himself locally with interviews and appearances.

Villanueva is believed to be the oldest player in the new AFL at 45 years old, barely edging out Danny Southwick in Billings. Given that the AFL caters to pocket passers, and Villanueva was more mobile than most during his last stint in the league, it’s not out of the realm of possibility to see him be a serviceable starter. It’s not entirely unusual to see quarterbacks play well into their 40’s. Just last year the Arizona Rattlers of the Indoor Football League brought Chris Dixon out of retirement after an injury to their starter Drew Powell, who is now with the Orlando Predators. 

What Brought Him Back? 

To his credit, Villanueva admits his decade-plus away from football was not always pretty as he struggled with depression due to his time away from a sport he loved to play. He sought out the team atmosphere he craved by coaching, and even fire fighting but it simply didn’t fill his desire to lace up the cleats once again. 

When asked how this opportunity came about, he said it was Villanueva who reached out to the team to get Coach King’s contact info. “I played against Coach King when he coached with Quad City. I knew they ran the same offense as us because of John Gregory. So I got his info and reached out, and he knew I knew his offense and how to work it, the rest is history.”

For the uninitiated Coach John Gregory was a long-time coach in College, the CFL, and AFL. He later served as the first commissioner for the NAL, and was trying to assist the International Arena Football League. He sculpted the indoor/arena world as we know it today. He coached for over 40 years and got his start in the AFL in 1995 with the then-expansion Iowa Barnstormers. He would go on to win back-to-back AFL Coach of the Year Awards his first two seasons in the league. He would also coach two of the biggest names ever to grace the AFL; Kurt Warner, and Aaron Garcia. He also coached Brian Villanueva with Arkansas and Iowa, and Shon King during his time in New York with the Dragons. Now two of his former players are teaming up once again in the new AFL. 

Keep in mind there are only a handful of players, and coaches in this league that have first-hand experience of the last iteration of the AFL. Rapid City is one of even a smaller number of teams that can boast a coaching staff and quarterback with first-hand knowledge. This knowledge could prove to be the difference in 2024.