Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle Cam Heyward didn't expect to see teammate Alejandro Villanueva break ranks with the team to honor a Black soldier who was killed in Iraq.
ESPN's Brooke Pryor wrote the Steelers decided to all wear the name of Antwon Rose Jr. on the back of their helmets this season. East Pittsburgh Police shot and killed Rose in June 2018. Villanueva covered Rose's name and instead wrote in Alwyn Cashe, who served in the Army and received a Silver Star Medal posthumously.
"I was surprised by what Al did," Heyward said. "You'll have to talk to him in the future, but in this country, we're given the freedom to do and support those that mean a lot to us."
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday that Villanueva informed him of his intentions prior to changing the name on his helmet, and he supported the offensive linemen's choice:
"He did discuss that with me. And this is in line with everything we said about participating in elements of social justice this offseason. As an organization and myself as a head coach of an organization, we are going to support our players in however they choose to participate and express themselves or to not participate or not express themselves, as long as they do so thoughtfully and with class."
Michelle Kenney, Rose's mother, criticized Villanueva's move in a Facebook post:
"Let me very very very clear. The Pittsburgh Steelers took a team vote. Obviously one person didn't like the results so they chose to do something different. I have nothing against vets and absolutely appreciate everything that they have done and continue to do for us. But this one person showed us exactly who he is and obviously he didn't approve of how the vote turned out. In my opinion; that's for his coach, team and organization to address NOT ME! While he was so busy being negative what it actually did now forced more people to engage in this conversation. I'm going to use this negative press and negativity to motivate me to hold the Pittsburgh Steelers even more accountable!!! Yes I believe in second chances but as we all know I believe in putting in the work and that’s how I base my collaborations. They came to me as a team/organization and I don’t care how good of an individual you are; if you are not a TEAM player then maybe you are playing for the wrong team!!!"
This is the second time Villanueva has made a separate decision from his teammates on a social justice-related matter.
Ahead of a September 2017 game against the Chicago Bears, he stood alone outside the tunnel during the national anthem while his teammates remained out of sight inside the tunnel. He later told reporters he "threw (my teammates) under the bus, unintentionally" with the decision.