Former New Mexico State and NFL football player, longtime booster and TV mogul Danny Villanueva Sr. died late Thursday night. He was 77 years old and lived in the Los Angeles area.
Villanueva had given millions of dollars over his lifetime to his alma mater, which is mourning his death.
“A star in the NFL and a titan in the broadcast industry his passing makes today, a very sad one for all of Aggie Nation,” NMSU athletic director Mario Moccia said in a statement late Friday. “I personally feel very fortunate to have met and spent time with him and his friends, who expressed bright days ahead for our athletic program.”
New Mexico State will memorialize Villanueva soon in plans still to be announced.
Family members had circulated emails saying Villanueva had fallen on the golf course less than three weeks ago, but got up and continued to play. Then earlier this week he suffered a massive stroke, from which family members were pessimistic about his recovery.
“Danny Villanueva was an outstanding Aggie, a great football player and a generous philanthropist,” said NMSU President Garrey Carruthers in a statement. “He came from a small town in New Mexico and rose to become a very successful entrepreneur in both television and real estate. We are sad to hear of his passing, yet very proud of all his accomplishments. Our hearts go out to his family.”
Villanueva was born in Tucumcari in 1937 but ultimately raised in California when his father, an itinerant Methodist preacher, settled there. Yet he came back to the state of New Mexico to play football for the Aggies (1958-59 after transferring from Reedley Junior College in California).
Villanueva was a punter for New Mexico State in 1958-59 and played for the victorious Aggie Sun Bowl team of 1959 that defeated North Texas 28-8.
Soon, the Los Angeles Rams signed him away from a student-teaching gig at Las Cruces High, having seen him connect on a 49-yard field goal in a 29-12 win over New Mexico earlier that season, thus beginning a pro career as a kicker and punter with the Rams (1960-64) and Dallas Cowboys (1965-67). He became one of the league’s first players of Mexican descent, according to NFL.com.
Villanueva connected on 85 of 160 (53.1 percent) field-goal tries and 236 of 241 extra-point attempts during his pro career, which went from 1960-67. He also set a Rams record for single-season punting average (45.5 yards in 1962) that stood for 45 years.
He twice played a role in games that made NFL history. He kicked the winning field goal in the host Los Angeles Rams’ 17-16 win over the Baltimore Colts on Sunday, Nov. 24, 1963 – two days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
The league was criticized for not postponing or canceling that weekend’s games in the wake of the assassination.
“What stands out in my mind is the eeriness of the whole thing,” Villanueva told the Journal in 2004. “We played the game in silence. I think people who wanted to cheer didn’t because it wasn’t politically correct.”
Villanueva was traded to the Cowboys for the 1965 season – coincidentally, in part, for another player with New Mexico roots, Roy native and Highland High graduate Tommy McDonald, an NFL Hall of Famer.
Villanueva’s last pro game was the famous Ice Bowl, the NFL Championship game between the Cowboys and host Green Bay Packers on Dec. 31, 1967, when game-time temperatures were minus-15 degrees and wind chill as cold as minus-48. He kicked a field goal and two extra points during the Packers’ epic 21-17 victory.
“I decided to retire on the way to the dressing room,” Villanueva told the Portales News-Tribune in 2013, reflecting on the punishment endured in the frigid weather conditions.
Villanueva was inducted into the NMSU Athletics Hall of Fame in 1970, but the greater impact his life would have was still to come.
While playing in the NFL, Villanueva also started a career in broadcasting as the sports director for KMEX-TV in Los Angeles. After his NFL retirement in 1968, he became the station’s full-time news director and later the station’s general manager.
It was from that position that Villanueva became a pioneer of the Spanish International Network that was later sold and renamed Univision.
Villanueva remained with Univision until 1990, when he launched a career as founding partner of Bastion Capital Corp. in Los Angeles, a venture capital firm. Bastion is a partner in the Telemundo TV network and other companies in the United States and Mexico.
In 1991, Villanueva established the Danny Villanueva Scholarship Endowment to assist Hispanic students who demonstrate a record of leadership at New Mexico State. He gave back to the athletics program in numerous ways, including a significant financial gift ($250,000) to the construction and decor of the Villanueva Victory Club in the Fulton Athletics Center.
Villanueva also served on the board of the New Mexico State University Foundation, which secures, manages and invests private gifts for the benefit of NMSU’s teaching, research, extension education and public service programs.
Villanueva is survived by his wife, Myrna, and two children.