By David Stevens
Danny Villanueva planned on a teaching career.
He was student teaching in a New Mexico State University classroom in 1960 when a mentor told him he had a phone call from the Los Angeles Rams.
“I thought they were hazing me,” he said.
But the call was real, spurred by a radio broadcaster who’d seen Villanueva kick in high school. He wowed a Rams coach in a practice session and weighed his options — “six-thousand dollars to play football, $5,500 to teach” — and spent eight seasons in the National Football League.
“I wanted to be a school administrator,” he remembered in a telephone interview this month. “But I had to find out if I could play football. I could not bear the thought of not trying to see what I could do.”
What he could do was kick five seasons for the Rams and three more for the Dallas Cowboys before retiring in 1967. He finished with 85 career field goals, 236 extra points and a career punting average of 42.8 yards.
He remains one of the longest-tenured pro football players with ties to eastern New Mexico, though his time in Tucumcari was brief.
“My father was an itinerant Methodist preacher,” Villanueva explained. His assignment was ministering to migrant farm workers. That’s how Danny came to be born in Tucumcari on Nov. 5, 1937. About a year later, Primitivo Villanueva was reassigned to Phoenix before ultimately settling his family in California.
Danny Villanueva returned to New Mexico to attend college and play football at New Mexico State University, before joining the Rams in 1960.
And his ties to the Las Cruces school remain strong.
The Danny Villanueva Scholarship Endowment provides seven scholarships annually to Hispanic students “with interests in being a leader,” he said.
At 75, education remains his passion, despite football and a career in Spanish-language broadcasting that earned him millions of dollars owning and operating dozens of radio and television stations.
He and his wife Myrna are actively involved in multiple projects at NMSU, including a “learners village” aimed at early-childhood education and with two dual-credit high schools that give students a head start on their college degrees.
Today, he lives in Los Angeles, but travels extensively for speaking engagements and to fulfill responsibilities on non-profit and for-profit leadership boards across the country. He said he sleeps about four hours a night and routinely works 16-hour days.
Football remains a part of his busy life, mostly because reporters won’t stop asking him about it.
Especially the Ice Bowl.
Villanueva was at the end of his career when the Green Bay Packers hosted the Dallas Cowboys on Dec. 31, 1967, in one of the coldest professional football games ever played.
Gametime temperature at Lambeau Field was 15 degrees below zero, with a wind-chill factor at 48 below.
The winner advanced to Super Bowl II against the upstart American Football League champion Oakland Raiders, but most considered the National Football League Championship game the one that mattered most.
Villanueva kicked a 29-yard field goal and two extra points to help the Cowboys take a 17-14 lead with 4:50 to play.
“I was going to run for mayor of Dallas,” Villanueva said.
But then the Packers drove 68 yards before quarterback Bart Starr scored from the 1-yard line to win the game with 16 seconds to play.
The temperature had dropped to 20-below zero, one fan had died from exposure, and players openly wept as they retreated, exhausted, from the weather.
“I decided to retire on the way to the dressing room,” Villanueva said.
But when he saw Coach Tom Landry was “so devastated” following the loss, he decided to postpone the announcement. “I wrote him a letter instead,” he said.
Villanueva remains a part of the Cowboys family and was scheduled to attend a team luncheon this month, but it’s charity work and promotion of education that stirs his soul these days.
“I may start teaching when I retire,” he said.