Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, a former Army Ranger who was lauded by fans for standing alone during the national anthem in Chicago, apologized Monday for being isolated from his teammates.
Villanueva, a West Point graduate who served three tours in Afghanistan, just wanted to be able to see the American flag. He never sought to stand alone in front of — and apart from — his Steelers teammates at Soldier Field on Sunday, Villanueva said in his first public comments since finding himself at the center of the controversy surrounding player protests across the NFL.
“Unfortunately, I threw them under the bus unintentionally,” Villanueva said.
His apology came on a day when Steelers captains Ben Roethlisberger and Cameron Heyward second-guessed the way the team handled the national anthem — when every player except for Villanueva remained inside the tunnel leading to the field.
Roethlisberger said the Steelers, one of three NFL teams to stay inside Sunday during the anthem, will return to the field starting with the team’s game this weekend in Baltimore.
“What we do on the field when we’re out there has yet to be determined,” Roethlisberger said.
Villanueva said he “butchered” the team’s decision to present a united front in protest of President Donald Trump’s criticism of NFL players who kneel during “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The players decided at a meeting Saturday night to not take the field for the anthem.
Coach Mike Tomlin said the plan was for the Steelers to remain out of view from the crowd and television cameras when the anthem was played. Tomlin wanted to protect players who wanted to kneel or sit during the anthem.
“I asked Ben (after the team meeting) if there was a way I could watch the national anthem from the tunnel,” Villanueva said. “He agreed, and said the captains would be right behind me.”
But when the anthem began, Villanueva was about 20 feet ahead of the other players, led by Roethlisberger and Heyward, who were still in the tunnel.
“It was a very embarrassing part on my end,” Villanueva said. “When everyone sees an image 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 entire team would have been out there with me, even the ones that wanted to take a knee would have been there with me. … 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.”
As the Steelers walked through the tunnel toward the field, Villanueva was in front, Roethlisberger said. The rest of the team, both players said, was delayed because of fans exiting the field that were carrying a Chicago Bears flag.
“When I turned around to signal everyone else in so they wouldn’t leave me alone, that’s when they were essentially unable to exit,” Villanueva said.
When Villanueva heard the anthem start, he put his hand over his heart while his teammates remained inside the tunnel.
“By the time the chaos that happened in front of us (was over) and we started to take our steps, the anthem started. We stopped to show respect for the anthem,” Roethlisberger said. “I regret not going down to Al, but Al did not know that we were not there. Al thought we were standing with him. There was no division there. … Today, I wish we would have continued down.”
Villanueva said he didn’t want to walk back inside the tunnel after the anthem started.
“That would have looked extremely bad,” he said.
He also thought it would have been disrespectful for his teammates to move toward him during the anthem.
“What you can get out of this is that we essentially butchered our plan,” he said.
Heyward said he and Roethlisberger reached out to Villanueva to absolve him of any blame.
“He never wants to feel like he’s an outsider or the center of attention,” Heyward said.
While the anthem played, Tomlin and three assistant coaches stood on the sideline. Roethlisberger said he was unaware at the time that the coaches were on the field.
“We could only concern ourselves with where we were at the moment,” he said.
Villanueva said he “always would stand for the national anthem” and noted how “people die for the flag.” He also said he initially was offended when former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began the trend of sitting or kneeling for the national anthem last summer.
But Villanueva said Monday he supports the rights of Kaepernick and others to peacefully protest.
“I went out there by myself, and that is the reason that is causing all this distress and is making the organization look bad, my coach look bad, and my teammates look bad,” Villanueva said. “And for anybody who thinks that 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.”
Chris Adamski and Joe Rutter are Tribune-Review staff writers. Reach Adamski at firstname.lastname@example.org and Rutter at email@example.com.
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