Alejandro Villanueva Stood on Field for Anthem with Steelers in Locker Room

Timothy RappFeatured ColumnistSeptember 25, 2017

Pittsburgh Steelers offensive tackle and former Army Ranger Alejandro Villanueva (78) stands outside the tunnel alone during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Chicago Bears, Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

While the Pittsburgh Steelers remained in the tunnel during the national anthem Sunday before their game against the Chicago Bearsstarting left tackle Alejandro Villanueva appeared in front of them outside of the tunnel.

According to Jeremy Fowler of ESPN.com, that decision surprised several Steelers given the "expectation from Saturday's players-only meeting that the entire team would remain in the locker room."

Fowler continued, "The starting left tackle was a key figure in the team's protest planning because of his background. Players wanted to accommodate Villanueva, who expressed during their 30-minute session that he didn't want to be singled out, the source said. Moving the protest off the field entirely was a way to keep solidarity without isolating an individual."

On Monday, Villanueva spoke to reporters, saying: "I made coach Tomlin look bad, and that is my fault and my fault only. I made my teammates look bad, and that is my fault...only."

"Every single time I see that picture of me standing by myself, I feel embarrassed," Villanueva continued.

Villanueva, 29, is a West Point graduate and former Army Ranger who was deployed in Afghanistan multiple times. Villanueva also earned a Bronze Star medal for his service, per Jacob Klinger of PennLive.com.

"In my case, my platoon was hammered time after time," Villanueva said about his service in 2014, per Ashley Fox of ESPN. "A lot of people were getting wounded, and a lot of people were getting hurt. When you have leaders that are still carrying the team and still pushing, they'll find an opportunity to say that night, 25th of August, this guy was overwhelmed, and he reacted by putting his own life at risk.

"But if you truly think about it, that's what I was supposed to do. Because what was I going to do, leave the guy out there? Am I going to just sit [while] an 18-year-old is screaming for help, and I was the guy who brought him out there? Am I just going to sit back and not do anything? Because what you're supposed to do is go get the guy and help him."

His teammates had mixed reactions to his decision to stray from the rest of the team.

"We thought we were all in attention with the same agreement, obviously," James Harrison told Jacob Klinger of PennLive.com. "But, I guess we weren't."

Chris Hubbard said there had been an exception granted for Villanueva, however.

"Al was cool with it, with whatever we went through. He was on board. That's Al, man," he said. "He's a good guy."

Defensive end Cam Heyward didn't want to get into the specifics of the decision but expressed support for Villanueva.

"I don't want to go into that, but we support our guy Al. He feels he had to do it. This guy served our country, and we thank him for it," Heyward said.

And guard David DeCastro had mixed feelings about the protests and demonstrations that have taken place during the anthem in general.

"Al is a unique circumstance, what he's been through, some of the things he's talked about before," he noted. "I've got a lot of respect for Al. I wish there was a different way to do this thing. We've got some people who look at the national anthem as patriotism, soldiers, all the stuff that it means, and obviously, people are upset, and I understand that. I just wish both sides understand that they want the right thing, but doing it through the national anthem, I wish there was a different way."

Villanueva's decision to stand outside of the tunnel certainly resonated with many people across the United States, per Darren Rovell:

As Peter Schrager of Fox Sports noted in August, however, Colin Kaepernick's jersey remained wildly popular as well despite his remaining without an NFL team: 

The mass protests around the NFL on Sunday, in response to President Donald Trump's suggestion that any NFL players who knelt or demonstrated during the anthem should be kicked off the field or fired, began with Kaepernick. The former San Francisco 49ers quarterback sat during the anthem during a preseason game in Aug. 2016 and continued to kneel during the anthem last season.

Kaepernick was protesting police brutality and the discrimination against minorities in the United States, and several other players took up that same form of protest this season before Sunday's mass protest around the NFL. Detractors have claimed that protesting during the national anthem is disrespectful to the military.