Why This Football Player Stood Tall for the National Anthem

Alejandro Villanueva, a veteran, broke from his team's protest on Saturday — and remained alone to honor our country and flag

by Zachary Leeman | 25 Sep 2017 at 11:04 AM

A swift backlash from athletes emerged this weekend after President Donald Trump took to Twitter to criticize football players who refuse to stand for the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Many of these athletes have had harsh words for the president, while others have joined protests by refusing to stand for the national anthem before games.

One Pittsburgh Steelers player is getting attention for doing exactly the opposite of his fellow team members. While the Steelers stayed off the field at a Saturday football game in an agreed-upon team protest, offensive tackle Alejandra Villanueva took to the field to stand for the national anthem on his own.

Villanueva is a former Army Ranger. He served three tours of duty in Afghanistan. The team had reportedly planned the protest at a meeting beforehand — and many were surprised by Villanueva’s action.

Linebacker James Harrison told PennLive about Villanueva’s decision, "We thought we were all in attention with the same agreement, obviously, but I guess we weren't."

Others were equally surprised but showed support for their teammate.

"We support our guy Al. He feels he had to do it."

“We support our guy Al. He feels he had to do it. This guy served our country, and we thank him for it,” said defensive end Cam Heyward, according to ESPN.

Guard David DeCastro said about Villanueva, as ESPN also reported, "Al is [in] a unique circumstance — what he's been through, some of the things he's talked about before.”

He continued, "I've got a lot of respect for Al. I wish there was a different way to do this thing. We've got some people who look at the national anthem as patriotism, soldiers, all the stuff that it means, and obviously, people are upset, and I understand that. I just wish both sides understand that they want the right thing, but doing it through the national anthem, I wish there was a different way."

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin had the harshest words for Villanueva. He said after the game, according to Fox News, that he was “looking for 100 percent participation, we were gonna be respectful of our football team.”

Related: Sports Are Now More About Politics Than Athletics

Tomlin added, "If those of us or individuals choose to participate in politics in some way I’m going to be supportive of that. But when we come out of locker rooms, we come out of locker rooms to play football games."

Villanueva’s decision to be the sole player to break from his team’s protest earned him a heavy amount of online support in the midst of heated debates about the mixing of politics and sports, as well as the president’s comments about players protesting.

What’s saddest about the entire event is that an Army Ranger who served three tours in a war zone was left to stand all alone for the national anthem. He had no team members, no friends next to him. The odd man out was the one standing for the flag.

Related: ESPN Is Driving Away Viewers for this Reason

Players have the right to peacefully protest in their own spare time — but it’s incredibly disheartening that Villanueva’s team did not follow his lead. He is a teammate and a veteran. The decision to stand with him in solidarity should have come before the motivation to perform any sort of protest against the president of our country. By leaving Villanueva alone on the field, the team chose cheap political points over a teammate.

The odd man out was the one standing for the flag.

Villanueva has spoken to the press in the past about players such as Colin Kaepernick kneeling for the national anthem. He revealed that he agreed with a lot of what Kaepernick and others had to say — but he wasn’t sure protesting the anthem was the right way to make political points.

“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 last year.

He added, “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.”

(photo credit, homepage and article images: Jeffrey Beall, Flickr)

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