Every Steelers player but one remained in the tunnel during the national anthem before Pittsburgh’s matchup against the Chicago Bears in Week 3. That lone player was U.S. Army veteran Alejandro Villanueva. Villanueva said Monday that he threw his teammates “under the bus unintentionally.”
"I made Coach Tomlin look bad, and that is my fault and my fault only,” Villanueva said. “I made my teammates look bad, and that is my fault and my fault only.”
"Every single time I see that picture of me standing by myself, I feel embarrassed,” Villanueva said.
Both Villanueva and his teammate Ben Roethlisberger explained the circumstances that led to Villanueva standing alone. Roethlisberger said that a plan was in place for the team captains to stand together with Villanueva at the front of the tunnel for the national anthem. Villanueva made it to his spot, but the team captains couldn’t reach him before the anthem began. When it started to play, they stopped moving out of respect.
What Alejandro Villanueva said
From now on, the team will take the field for the anthem. And Villanueva said that if he has teammates who choose to kneel or sit, he respects that.
“Out of all these players in the NFL that are taking a knee, I don’t think as a veteran that I’d take offense,” Villanueva said. “I think as a big picture, we’re discussing different things.
“Nobody thinks that when you’re taking a knee, you’re offending the flag ... and I don’t think anybody that’s standing for the flag is not respecting the fact that there are a lot of injustices and racial divides in our country.”
The reasons behind Villanueva’s wish to stand for the anthem were clear. He’s a former Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan. His service means that the flag and the anthem carry special meaning for him.
“Whether it’s my unit, whether it’s Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard — it doesn’t matter,” Villanueva said. “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.”
Villanueva said he didn’t believe that standing along meant his teammates disagreed with his decision.
“So I think my teammates respected this thoroughly,” Villanueva said. “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.”
What Ben Roethlisberger said
Roethlisberger emphasized that leaving Villanueva out there by himself was unintentional.
"Al didn't know that we weren't there,” Roethlisberger said. “Al thought we were standing there. There was no division there ... I wish today that we would have continued down."
And in the future, the team will be on the field for the anthem.
“What we do when we’re out there is yet to be determined,” Roethlisberger said.
He explained the process behind the team’s decision to remain in the tunnel. The Steelers had a players-only meeting on Saturday night with a goal of being unified, whatever that looked like.
“And we had some people that felt they wanted to kneel, some people that wanted to stand, some people that wanted to sit,” Roethlisberger said. “But we said, ‘what can we do to stay together?’ We felt the best thing that everyone was on board with was standing in the tunnel during the anthem.”
Roethlisberger also clarified that this was not intended as a slight at the U.S. military.
“This is in no way shape or form a protest of the national anthem,” Roethlisberger said. “It was a way for us to stay unified over the division of things that are going on in this country.”
Roethlisberger said that while the team did decide its unity was the priority, he personally wanted to be out there for the anthem.
"I just felt like that I wish that we would have been on the field,” Roethlisberger said. “That's just my personal feeling on it. I'm entitled to that opinion. That's what's great about this country and what the troops are for. I wish we could have stood out there.”
Roethlisberger released a statement via his website saying that he hopes that “standing for the anthem” in the future will show “solidarity as a nation.”
What Cam Heyward said
Villanueva got support from teammate Cam Heyward right after the game.
"I don't want to go into that, but we support our guy Al. He feels he had to do it. This guy served our country, and we thank him for it,” Heyward said.
And on Monday, Heyward reaffirmed that perspective.
"We never want to single one person out,” Heyward said Monday. “We never want to leave one man behind. I know it looked like that in that picture ... and we reached out to Al personally. We didn't ever want him to feel like we didn't have his back."
Villanueva’s jersey sales skyrocketed on Monday. His jersey is now the top seller in men’s and women’s, and it’s second behind Antonio Brown in children’s sizes. That attention is also an unintended consequence for Villanueva.
"He was shocked by the picture. ... He never wants to feel like he's an outsider or the center of attention,” Heyward said.
There were protests during the national anthem all over the NFL on Sunday after President Donald Trump called for a boycott of the league. Trump said that players who protest during the anthem should be fired or suspended. While addressing a crowd of supporters in Alabama over the weekend, he referred to any player who would protest during the national anthem a “son of a bitch.”
Despite the fact that Villanueva stood alone on Sunday, the Steelers’ unity in the locker room seems to be intact.