As the rest of the Pittsburgh Steelers were noticeably absent from Chicago's Soldier Field before their game against the Bears on Sunday night, Alejandro Villanueva was the lone Steeler who stood for the performance of the National Anthem.
The Steelers offensive tackle—a former Army Ranger who was awarded a Bronze Star while serving three tours in Afghanistan—subsequently confused his teammates and head coach Mike Tomlin with the move.
“I was looking for 100 percent participation, we were gonna be respectful of our football team,” Tomlin told reporters when asked about Villanueva after the Steelers’ 23-17 overtime loss.
The team was reportedly divided on the issue. Ultimately, but not unanimously, it was understood that they would remain off-field during the National Anthem.
“They discussed it for an appropriate length of time and they couldn’t come to an understanding, so they chose to remove themselves from it," Tomlin said.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger stressed that whatever route they chose, team unity was to be of utmost importance.
“Some guys wanted to take a knee, guys wanted to stand,” Roethlisberger said.
“We said whatever we do we need to make sure we’re unified as one group because that’s what we’re about, and that’s what this should be about is staying together as one unit and one group and one brotherhood, things like that."
Villanueva's insistence on showing respect for the flag reflects his view on Colin Kaepernick's momentous decision to kneel during the anthem last year.
"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," Villanueva told ESPN in 2016.
However, he fully supports Kaepernick's motives behind his long-running protest.
“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.”
In the post-game presser, Steelers defensive end Cameron Heward assured reporters that despite the confusion, the rest of the team has Villanueva's back.
“I don’t want to go into that, but we support our guy Al,” Heyward said “He feels he had to do it. This guy served our country, and we thank him for it.”
Villanueva was not present to take questions from the media after the game, but the action alone made him an internet sensation overnight.
h/t: New York Post