Pittsburgh Steelers offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva met the media Monday to discuss what happened prior to Sunday’s game in Chicago.
While some NFL players knelt, sat or locked arms during the anthem Sunday as a show of unity and form of protest to comments made by President Trump, the Steelers had planned to stay in the locker room instead of making any gesture on the sidelines. But Villanueva was photographed by himself in a tunnel by the field with his right hand over his heart during the anthem at Soldier Field.
Villanueva, a former Army Ranger who toured several times in Afghanistan, explained what happened:
Alejandro Villanueva: This is humbling.
So I’ll first address the last 48 hours of events and what’s transpired.
This national anthem sort of ordeal has been out of control, and I think there’s a lot to blame on myself, and I want to address it.
So Saturday night, as you guys all know, there was a team meeting that was going to determine what we were going to do as a team. Coach [Mike] Tomlin gave us the guidance that we had to do it as one, so 100 percent, whatever it is that we had to do.
There was disagreement in what we were going to do. And the only course of action was to go inside and remove ourself from the situation. It was never to disrespect the national anthem. Every single one of my teammates is extremely supportive and extremely patriotic in this locker room. And I can not only say that for this locker room, but I can say that across the NFL, every single player that I’ve gone against.
After the meeting … based on my unique circumstances and based on the fact that I’ve served in the Army and pretty much that my life is lived through the military, I asked Ben [Roethlisberger] if there was a way to define the inside or where it is we were going to stay and if I could watch the national anthem from the tunnel, and he agreed. He said the captains will be out there right behind me, so this plan morphed to accommodate this tough, moral dilemma that I had in my hands to where the players can be behind me in the tunnel.
Ben Roethlisberger said at 56 make sure you’re out there because the national anthem is going to start at 57. I walked out at 12:56. I asked one of the security guards when the national anthem was going to start, he said 20 seconds. So I just walked out and I stopped as soon as I saw the flag, as soon as I had a vantage point. That, to me, was enough. There was a flag that was coming in from one of the previous celebrations. When I turned around to sort of signal everyone to come so they wouldn’t leave me alone that’s when they were essentially unable to exit. At that moment it was the decision of do you walk out of the national anthem and join your teammates? I know that would have looked extremely bad. Or as a team, do you start moving halfway through the national anthem?
So essentially what we can get out of this is we butchered our plan to sort of have a response for the national anthem and respect everyone’s opinions.
I would say that my personal thoughts about the situation is that 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.
It’s quite the opposite. They all would have … actually the entire team would have been out there with me, even the ones who wanted to take a knee would have been with me had they known these extreme circumstances that at Soldier Field, in the heat of the moment, when I’ve got soldiers, wounded veterans texting me that I have to be out there, I think everything would have been put aside, from every single one of my teammates, no doubt.
So because of that, I’ve made Coach Tomlin look bad, and that is my fault, and that is my fault only. I made my teammates look bad, and that is my fault, and my fault only. And I made the Steelers also look bad, and that is my fault, and my fault only. So unwillingly, I made a mistake. I talked to my teammates about the situation, hopefully they understand it. If they don’t, I still have to live with it, because the nature of this debate is causing a lot of very heated reaction from fans from players, and it’s undeserving to all of the players and coaches from this organization.
So with that, I’ll open up for any questions.
Alejandro Villanueva, a former Army Ranger, explained why he stood in the tunnel by himself, then he apologized to his teammates and the Steelers. Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Al, would you be OK if … Ben said everyone’s going to go onto the field in Baltimore. Would you be OK if your teammates knelt — some of them knelt, some of them sat?
AV: Yeah, absolutely. There have been players that have gone out of their way in the National Football League to thank me for my service. The archrivals in the AFC North, Terrell Suggs, Michael Johnson, John Harbaugh, they’ve gone out of their way after a game to thank me for my service. And not just because it’s me, it’s because I’m a soldier, I could be Soldier X, and they’re out there thanking me.
So out of all these players in the NFL who are taking a knee, I don’t think as a veteran I take offense. In a big picture where there’s customized different thing, nobody thinks when you’re taking a knee you’re offending the flag. And they’re saying it. And I don’t think that anybody that standing for the flag is not respecting the fact that there is a lot of unjustices and racial divide in our country. So we’re essentially talking about two completely different things.
But the problem is that it’s interpreted as disrespectful to the flag, and so at the end of the day people have to live with those consequences.
Colin Kaepernick did, and there’s a lot that can be said about his adventure of starting this process. But I take no offense, I don’t think veterans at the end of the day take offense, they actually signed up and fought so that somebody could take a knee and protest peacefully for whatever it is their hearts desire.
What did you express to your teammates Saturday night about any potential feelings you had about not seeing the field?
AV: There’s a lot of levels, and there’s a lot of reasons why people join the Army. But at the end of the day … it happens all the time, people die for the flag. There’s no way else to put it. When somebody’s about to go on a mission, when somebody’s loading up the Chinook, when somebody’s ready to go, there’s nothing else that’s going to justify other than the men to the left and right dying for that mission. I wish I could stay home. I wish we could all play “Call of Duty” and not have to go to war. Some men, some women, sign up for this tough challenge, and they have to do it for the flag. When I see a flag of a mission on the shoulder of a soldier that reminds me that that guy’s with me. It reminds me that I have to fight and lay my life down for him. Whether it’s in my unit, whether it’s Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, it doesn’t matter. You’re going to have a flag on your shoulder, I’m going to identify that, and we’re fighting for each other. So that’s what the flag means to me, that’s what the flag means to a lot of veterans. Wounded warriors, they have no legs, they have shrapnel in their legs, they stand up and salute [during] the national anthem, it means a lot to them, it means a lot to me. So I think my teammates respected this thoroughly. It was just not communicated and the plan did not allow them the chance to get out and support me or maybe go back to the lab and sit five more hours before the game and figure out a plan. I thought we had to go to bed, work something in the middle. Unfortunately, I threw them under the bus unintentionally.
Al, today you had the best-selling jersey in the league. You’re a guy who doesn’t enjoy — you don’t like this attention for this sort of stuff — so how does it feel? People are treating you because of those pictures today, they’re treating you as some sort of hero who stood up to whatever. They sort of take or interpret it for another thing. What would you say to people who are trying to put you up there?
AV: It’s completely wrong, and every single time I see that picture of me standing by myself I feel embarrassed to a degree, because like I said, unintentionally I left my teammates behind. It wasn’t me stepping forward. I never planned to boycott the plan that the Steelers came up with. I just thought that there would be some middle ground where I could stay in the tunnel, nobody would see me, and then afterward I just wouldn’t talk to the media, like I do all the time. I’ll avoid you guys, I’ll shower, bring my clothes in, never address you guys and two weeks later you guys will be talking about something else.
So I thought that was in my head what was going to happen: Steelers don’t show up for national anthem, there’s a debate nationally about what’s right or wrong, everything goes down, we go back to talk about North Korea or the health-care bill and then we play the Baltimore Ravens and we forget about it. So you guys know me, for the guys who come into the locker room all the time, I hate attention, I don’t like it, I give you guys clichés so you guys will leave me alone. But when it comes to this, it’s a difficult situation, and I don’t like the attention, and at the end of the day, the reason whether I want it or not, whether it was my intent or not, the reason I went out there by myself is the reason that is causing all this distress that is making the organization look bad, my coach look bad and my teammates look bad. And for anybody who thinks Coach Tomlin is not as patriotic as you can get in America, or any one of my teammates or the owner, I take offense to that. That’s how I feel when I see myself standing alone for the national anthem.
Al, do you think the president should apologize for calling NFL players derogatory names or for drawing you guys into this in the first place?
AV: You know, you guys do this for a living. You guys enjoy, and you guys comment on what the president says, I play football. I don’t have anything to say about the commander-in-chief and his decisions. I’ve been following orders when I was in the military, and now I’m not responsible enough to make a comment about the president. I’ll stick to football. I respect other players who want to talk about the president and his decision, but I have a lot on my plate. I have to play to a standard. I have to represent the Steelers organization, so I have nothing to comment about what the president says.
In following the story and having to see that picture, what did you learn about how the country views this issue that could be divisive?
AV: I think I’m going to give credit to Coach [Mike] Munchak, because he’s the one that sort of deciphered it for all of us. We’re not talking about the same thing. That’s the thing people need to understand when it comes to the national anthem. And I was one of the first ones who took offense when Colin Kaepernick took a knee. I was one of the first ones who did an interview and, to a certain degree, I never criticized but I didn’t agree with it. People don’t understand, but the people who are taking a knee are not saying anything negative about the military, not saying anything negative about the flag. They’re just trying to protest the fact that there are some injustices in America. And for people to stand up for the national anthem, it doesn’t mean they don’t believe in these racial injustices, they’re just trying to do the right thing.
So we as a team tried to figure it out, obviously butchered it, but I have learned that I don’t know what it’s like to be from Dade County, I don’t know what it’s like to be from Lakeland, I can’t tell you that I know what my teammates have gone through. So I’m not going to pretend that I have the righteous sort of voice to tell you that you should stand up for the national anthem. It is protected by our constitution, and by our country, it’s a freedom of speech. People felt that based on the comments the president made that they had to go out and support Colin Kaepernick, and that’s completely their right. But it’s not something we’re trying to do with the Steelers, we’re trying to be unified, and unfortunately I made the team look sort of all over the place and not unified. It was a very unfortunate sort of 48 hours for me.
You think you’ll be able to go back to anonymity you seek now that you’re thrown out in front of this?
AV: I’m always going to stand up for the national anthem. Coach Tomlin could have picked any other tackle to develop and turn into a starting left tackle. I have to be real with myself and understand that the reason I’m playing here, the reason the Steelers got me here, is because I served in the military. They saw something in that story that attracted them. Because the Philadelphia Eagles cut me and I was the first player to be cut in Philadelphia, and the only person to call me was Coach Tomlin. So I don’t know. To a certain degree I really don’t care. I can’t go out there and pick you up if you’re taking a knee or make you put your hand on your heart or sing the national anthem. I really don’t care. I’m going to stand up for the national anthem. I’ll support all my teammates. All my teammates have always supported me. All my coaches have always supported me. There are 32 teams out there. I got cut from Philadelphia, the only one to call me was Mike Tomlin, and it was because he saw some character traits that might help me become a future starter. And he did, so for me, I’m not going to control that. If the whole NFL wants to kneel down, stand up, go to Army-Navy store, buy new uniforms, it doesn’t matter. I’m just trying to play football.
Will you share what your teammates may have said to you over the last 24 hours, and do you think in some strange way this has brought the team even closer together?
AV: The team meeting that we had on Saturday night brought the whole team together. Absolutely, it really did. We had great conversations between people that felt some type of way. We completely understood that everything that was going on outside the building was not in our control and we were going to do something together.
Unfortunately I felt the pressure of having to find some middle ground so I could at least be in the national anthem. My teammates wanted to do that, it got butchered because of this flag thing, maybe and hopefully if this is a really big deal, they’ll find videos, of people as they were bringing out the flag and you can tell they could not leave the locker room. But how would you feel if you were a player, there was a lot of players, I’m not going to name them, I would say 99, I would say almost all of them, I couldn’t even tell you who was going to take a knee, but all my teammates wanted to stand up for the national anthem, they did not want this to be a distraction at all. Their first course of action was to go out there and stand up. But in order to remove any doubt of last second, we decided to stay away from the situation. Not protest it, but stay away from the situation. And how would you feel if you were somebody who really wants to go out there and stand up for the national anthem, and you didn’t know there was a player who was going to stand out there in the tunnel and see from a vantage point. I would be really pissed, because now he’s getting all the heat and all the — obviously I don’t have social media, but they have social media, they’re getting negative feedback because they didn’t stand up for the national anthem, when in reality they would have done it. They were fighting to stand up for the national anthem. Everybody on the offensive line was very adamant about standing up for the national anthem. Who cares? You know. We understand there’s a lot of problems out there. But I didn’t give them the chance, based on the fact I told very few people, that there were going to be a selective few that were going to go out there. We were just trying to come up with a middle-ground plan so that I would at least get to see the national anthem, some other players would, but if you have a different type of view, you could stay in the locker room.