Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said Sunday morning that his entire team would stay in the locker room during the national anthem to help his players avoid politics. But one player stood outside the tunnel for a very good reason.
While dozens of NFL players took a knee during the national anthem in protest on Sunday, the Steelers stayed in their locker room. Just prior to the anthem, the Steelers’ sideline was deserted. And then one player emerged from the Steelers’ tunnel: Left tackle Alejandro Villanueva.
His fellow football players made statements by taking a knee. But Villanueva chose to make a much different statement. He emerged from the tunnel, helmet in hand, put his hand over his heart and stood in reverence while the national anthem played in Chicago’s Solider Field.
Alejandro Villanueva was the lone Steelers player to come out during the national anthem pic.twitter.com/Jl7id3EGnk
— SB Nation (@SBNation) September 24, 2017
What sets Villanueva apart?
Most professional football players get to the league by being a standout in college. But Villanueva had a much different career path, one that made his decision on Sunday very easy.
Before playing in the NFL, Villanueva served in the U.S. Army, rising to the rank of captain. He served three tours of duty in Afghanistan and even earned a Bronze Star for recusing injured soldiers while under enemy fire. He graduated from West Point and joined the Army Rangers late in his military career.
What has Villanueva said about the protests before?
Last August, when Colin Kaepernick initiated the protests, Villanueva said, according to SB Nation:
I don’t know if the most effective way is to sit down during the national anthem with a country that’s providing you freedom, providing you $16 million a year … when there are black minorities that are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan for less than $20,000 a year.
But he was also quick to acknowledge the problems that Kaepernick was working to highlight:
I will be the first one to hold hands with Colin Kaepernick and do something about the way minorities are being treated in the United States, the injustice that is happening with police brutality, the justice system, inequalities in pay. You can’t do it by looking away from the people that are trying to protect our freedom and our country.
Villanueva was universally praised on social media:
— Pete Hegseth (@PeteHegseth) September 24, 2017
Alejandro Villanueva is the lone Steeler player standing by his own for the anthem. He fought for this country as a CAP in the army. 🇺🇸
— Nick B. (@N1ckBauch) September 24, 2017
His team sat in the locker room, but Alejandro Villanueva (Army Ranger, Afghanistan war vet, Bronze Star recipient) STOOD, hand over heart🇺🇸 pic.twitter.com/DRtcruxEwh
— Chet Cannon (@Chet_Cannon) September 24, 2017
Alejandro Villanueva displayed courage on the battlefield as an Army Ranger. Now he is the lone Steeler to show courage on football field! https://t.co/yF5DcFktqM
— Kayleigh McEnany (@kayleighmcenany) September 24, 2017
Thank you Alejandro Villanueva for your service!! Breaks my heart to see the disrespect from your @steelers teammates!! 🇺🇸
— Amy Larsson (@larsson_amy) September 24, 2017