As the National Anthem played across Soldier Field in Chicago on Sunday, Pittsburgh Steelers offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva stood alone…with his hand over his heart…just outside the team’s entrance tunnel.
With the rest of his team conspicuous by their absence, the image of Villanueva paying homage to his Nation was one of the most striking, on what was a day of unprecedented protests around the league. Other NFL players, owners, and teams had been participating in peaceful protests by locking arms, sitting or kneeling. While these displays were met with some negative reaction, Villanueva’s was heralded as an act of true patriotism.
The irony here is that Alejandro Villanueva was neither making a political statement, nor trying to disrespect his teammates, or any of the other players around the league. He certainly wasn’t doing it bring attention to himself. He was simply doing what came naturally.
Serving the best interest of the United States of America is far from being a foreign concept to Villanueva. While most know him for his accomplishments on the field with the Steelers (and the Philadelphia Eagles before that), his most prideful accomplishments were achieved during his service in the U.S. Military.
After graduating from the United States Military Academy, Villanueva was commissioned into the U.S. Army. On May 22, 2010, Villanueva became a second lieutenant in the Infantry. Directly after being commissioned, he attended various military schools, including the Infantry Airborne and Ranger School, located at Fort Benning, Georgia. After completing the three courses he was assigned to the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, New York.
While with the 10th Mountain Division, he was deployed to Afghanistan for 12 months in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. During this deployment, Villanueva served as a rifle platoon leader. As a result of his actions, he was awarded a Bronze Star Medal with “V” Device. This medal is awarded for rescuing wounded soldiers while under enemy fire.
When he returned from his deployment, he was reassigned as a company executive officer. Shortly thereafter, in 2013, Villanueva volunteered for the 75th Ranger Regiment’s Ranger Orientation Program. He was assigned to the 1st Ranger Battalion, where he served as a plans officer, platoon leader and company executive officer. He was deployed two more times to Afghanistan for a total of eight months, between both deployments.
Villanueva would be the first to say that his accomplishments are no greater than the numerous sacrifices and displays of bravery exhibited by military soldiers each and every day. Both his fellow soldiers and Steelers teammates describe him as a man that cares more for the well-being of others than himself.
Villanueva exhibited those very sentiments when he offered an apology to his teammates, coaches and the league for any negative connotations brought by his actions. In his first press conference after Sunday’s game against the Bears, Villanueva clarified that the team didn’t know he planned to stand outside and would have stood with him, had they known. In short, he was simply showing his respect to the Nation he had sworn to defend. Most importantly, he truly regretted that his actions had caused his teammates any negativity. He was quoted as saying:
“I would say that my personal thoughts about the situation is regardless of this plan; very few players knew that I was going to the tunnel because I only asked the team leadership, and because of that, I did not give them an opportunity to stand with me during the National Anthem. That is the very embarrassing part of my end in what transpired because when everybody sees an image of me standing by myself, everybody thinks that the team, the Steelers, are not behind me, and that’s absolutely wrong.”
As a result of his actions on Sunday, merchandise bearing Villanueva’s name (including jerseys, t-shirts and other name and number apparel) saw an increase in sales across the entire platform of NFL Shop. However, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, he will not be using his increase in popularity for personal gain. Staying true to form, Villanueva said he will donate all of the proceeds from his number 78 merchandise to military non-profits, as he has done in the past.
Although some have praised him for what they perceived to be an act of patriotic defiance, Alejandro Villanueva intended nothing of the sort. His was a humble act, which did not seek publicity. Instead of using him as a symbol of sentiments for which he does not stand, he should be admired for his true nature; one of service. His commitment to service began at his home, was cultivated in the military and is shared on the football field. That is the true reason why his jersey should be worn proudly by NFL fans. On behalf of a grateful nation, we thank Alejandro Villanueva…not for his gesture on Sunday, but for a lifetime of service to every American.
-Mike D’Abate is the Managing Editor for cover32.com/Chargers and covers the Los Angeles Chargers. He is also a National Content Writer for cover32.com and covers the NFL.