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December 23, 2011

Villavisencio was model student-athlete

When University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias died two days after being the second overall pick in the 1986 NBA draft by the Boston Celtics, Larry Bird was asked by a reporter for his thoughts.

Bird, never one to mince words, looked at the reporter for a second and said, "That's the cruelest thing I've ever heard."

Larry Legend never met Joe Villavisencio, or he may have had cause to reconsider.

The senior died Thursday in a highway crash near the town of Normangee. Villavisencio was driving north when he swerved to avoid a buzzard in the road and his car hit an 18-wheeler in the southbound lane, the Texas Department of Public Safety said. Villavisencio was killed in the accident.

Like Bias, "Joey V." left this world at the entirely too young age of 22. But that's where the similarities end. Bias was a superior athlete who thrived in the spotlight; Villavisencio was a part-time player whose name was rarely mentioned in discussions of Aggie football. Bias, though, had followed a dark path that led to his death, while the young A&M offensive lineman was well on his way to doing great things with his mind and his heart.

When he committed to former coach Dennis Franchione, Villavisencio was a relatively unheralded recruit out of Jacksonville, Texas. But there was already something different about him -- he missed an overnight visit because he was taking part in an orchestra competition, for instance. While a lot of kids loved talking to recruiting services, Villavisencio would patiently answer questions, politely, then at the end of the interview ask if it was OK if that was the only one they did. He wasn't interested in the spotlight; he wanted to play football and keep on his studies. He did both pretty darn well -- he was second-team All-State as a senior and the valedictorian of his class.

When he got to A&M, he found the coach who recruited him gone and Mike Sherman had taken his place. Villavisencio didn't complain; he just went to work and gave his best effort. Every practice, every day. When the Aggies were desperate on the offensive line in 2008, he stepped up and started in a win at Iowa State.

That would be the highlight of his A&M career -- on the field, at least. His best work was saved for other places.

Even though he was primarily a backup, he held the respect of all of his teammates. He was a guy they could turn to for advice, and he was always there to pick them up when they were down. Even from a distance, observers could see something different in the way "Joey V." handled himself, and not in his blocking stance. He was more mature, more composed, than other young men his age.

People up close saw that difference a lot easier than others.

"His teammates, coaches and fellow students will remember him as someone who would do anything for anybody. I will always remember him as always offering me a smile whenever we talked and would always answer my questions with a simple, 'yes, coach' or 'no, coach,'" Sherman said Thursday night. "He was one of the most respectful and high character players I have ever coached. It was an honor and privilege to have known him, and to have coached him."

To hear that from a man who coached Reggie White, Darren Sharper and Vonnie Holliday, along with hundreds of others, is high praise. But it doesn't tell the whole story. When most football players are studying something as simple as possible in order to stay eligible on the field, Villavisencio was studying nuclear engineering. People may not have known his name, but he was well on his way to being someone who millions of people thanked every time they flipped a light switch. When it came to being a student-athlete, he should have been the NCAA's poster child.

On his last day on this planet, Joe Villavisencio went to the Twin City Mission in Bryan to hand out Christmas presents to kids with nothing, just to make their holiday season a little brighter. Then he was heading home to his family. The kind, polite young man is gone, in part, because he didn't want to hurt a buzzard in the middle of the road.

A lot of times, we get focused in on athletes who do great things on the field and overlook the guys who are quietly doing great things off it. That's where Joey V. was at his best.

And that's what makes his loss so cruel.

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