PITTSBURGH — Alejandro Villanueva just wanted to get a glimpse of the American flag, the symbol he wore on his military uniform during three tours in Afghanistan before beginning an unlikely journey from Army Ranger to the NFL.
The massive left tackle and West Point graduate has no interest in becoming a symbol in a fight he wants no part of, no matter how it may have looked on Sunday at Soldier Field, when Villanueva found himself standing alone as the flag waved, the national anthem played and his teammates remained covered in darkness in a tunnel behind him.
The optics made it appear as if Villanueva was making a statement about where he stands in the mushrooming political battle that has turned high-profile athletes’ action (or inaction) during the playing of the “Star Spangled Banner” into a national referendum on patriotism.
Villanueva insists he was not, that saluting the colors had everything to do with miscommunication and nothing to do with him setting himself apart from the organization, the coaches or the players who have helped craft his improbable success story.
“It’s a very embarrassing part on my end,” Villanueva said on Monday. “When everyone sees images of me standing by myself, everybody thinks the team and the Steelers are not behind me and that is absolutely wrong. It’s quite the opposite.”
The Steelers met as a team on Saturday night to discuss how to handle the anthem following president Donald Trump’s tweets suggesting players who don’t stand for it should be fired.
Coach Mike Tomlin told his players whatever they decided, they needed to do it as a team. When the group couldn’t reach a consensus, they opted to remove themselves from the situation by staying off the field until after the anthem was played.
Villanueva reached out to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, asking if he could be at the front of the pack. Roethlisberger told Villanueva to meet in the tunnel four minutes before kickoff. Villanueva said he arrived early and walked out far enough to see the flag. He asked a security guard when the anthem would start and was told “20 seconds.” He turned back toward his teammates in the tunnel when the music began playing.
So Villanueva did what he’s done his entire life: he stopped and put his right hand over his heart even as his mind raced.
“The decision was ‘Do you walk out of the national anthem and join your teammates?’” Villanueva said. “I know that would have looked extremely bad. Or as a team do you start moving halfway through the national anthem? What you can get out of this is that we essentially butchered our plan.”
Leaving the 29-year-old Villanueva and the Steelers in a difficult spot. Roethlisberger and the rest of the 53-man roster was ready to join Villanueva but was slowed by a group of Chicago fans exiting the field. Then the first verse was roaring through the loudspeakers and it was too late.
“I wish today we would have continued down,” Roethlisberger said. “I know there would have been a lot of chaos and commotion because the guys behind us wouldn’t know what was going on. There was no division there. That’s just the way it appeared through pictures and cameras and stuff.”
Roethlisberger said the entire team will take the field on Sunday when Pittsburgh plays in Baltimore, though it’s uncertain whether they will present a unified front or have some players protest in some form.
Either way, they will be there alongside Villanueva, who defended his teammates for the surreal scene at Soldier Field, placing the blame on himself.
“The entire team would have been out there with me, even the ones that wanted to take a knee would have been there with me had they known these extremely (difficult) circumstances,” he said.
“Because of that I’ve made Mike Tomlin look bad, and that’s my fault and my fault only. I’ve made my teammates look bad and that’s my fault and my fault only. I also look bad and that’s my fault and my fault only.”
Regardless of the actual intentions of all involved, the combination of Villanueva’s background and the striking image of his No. 78 cutting a singular figure against the Soldier Field grass on a politically charged afternoon across the NFL turned him into an unwitting cause celebrity.
The former undrafted free agent whose professional football career nearly ended shortly after it began when he was cut by Philadelphia in 2014 had the most popular-selling jersey on the league’s website Monday.
On social media, he was hailed as a hero for appearing to take a stance against the growing tide of protests that began when former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the 2016 season to bring attention to the issues of police brutality and racial injustice.
Villanueva wasn’t doing anything of the sort.
“That’s completely wrong, and every single time I see that picture of me standing by myself, I feel embarrassed to a degree because unintentionally I left my teammates behind,” he said.
“It wasn’t me stepping forward. I never planned to boycott the plan that the Steelers came up with. I just thought there would be some middle ground where I could stand in the tunnel, nobody would see me.”