When Alejandro Villanueva, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ starting left tackle, arrived at West Point for cadet basic training in the summer of 2006, he already stood out — and not just because he was bigger than anyone else.
Even in a corps of cadets that typically includes a decent number of valedictorians, class presidents and team captains, older students thought Villanueva was unusually “squared away” for a new plebe.
“He was never in trouble, and he always seemed to be doing better than everyone else,” said Capt. Daniel Harrison, who, three years ahead of Villanueva, was his company commander during part of that summer’s basic training.
Typical of Cadet Villanueva, recalled Harrison, was that he was the first plebe to take off his gas mask and breathe the burning air during a mandatory tear-gas drill. “Even then he seemed to be a leader among his peers,” Harrison said.
After starring at West Point, where he started at left tackle every game in 2008 but in 2009 played as a receiver, leading the team in catches and receiving yards, the next few years were even more of a whirlwind:
Winning a Bronze Star for valor as a platoon leader in Afghanistan; completing Ranger school, the Army’s premier leadership course and one of the most challenging tests in the military; serving two more tours in Afghanistan in the elite Ranger Regiment; and eventually winning a starting job and a four-year, $24 million contract with the Steelers.
Now, Villanueva has one more bit of fame: He was the only member of the Steelers to walk out of the tunnel before Sunday’s game against the Chicago Bears and hold his hand over his heart while the national anthem played. His teammates remained several feet behind him, just inside the tunnel — notably not on the field, in protest of President Donald J. Trump and his comments about the N.F.L.
Villanueva, a 6-foot-8, 320-pound lineman who was born in Mississippi but is the son of a Spanish naval officer, did not speak with the news media after Sunday’s game.
But in past interviews he has expressed solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, whose protests last season about the way African-Americans are treated — first by sitting, and later by kneeling, during the national anthem — have spread to other teams, drawing the ire of President Trump over the weekend.
“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,” Villanueva said, according to ESPN.
Rather, he has questioned whether Kaepernick’s approach has inadvertently suggested a lack of appreciation for service members whose sacrifices have made such protests possible.
“You can’t do it by looking away from the people that are trying to protect our freedom and our country,” he said.
He added: “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.”
After the Steelers’ loss on Sunday, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said the team had agreed at a players-only meeting on Saturday night to remain in the locker room or tunnel during the anthem. His teammates might not have been aware that Villanueva would step out of the tunnel into a more visible position near the field.
“We thought we were all in attention with the same agreement, obviously,” the Steelers’ James Harrison said, according to PennLive. “But, I guess we weren’t.”
Asked whether it was a problem that Villanueva appeared for the anthem when the rest of the team did not, Roethlisberger said only, “No.”
And he emphasized that the team’s decision was in “no way, shape or form” meant to disrespect service members, adding that the players “have nothing but the utmost respect for them, obviously; they give us the freedom to play this game.”
Like a lot of combat veterans, Villanueva appears to have allowed his time overseas to frame his perspective on the rest of his life, including playing professional football.
When asked about being one of the league’s lowest-paid starting left tackles — a position guarding his quarterback’s blind side that often commands a premium in the N.F.L. — he pointed out that others have endured far more serious challenges.
“I was deployed three times,” he told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last year. “I’ve got so many things, so many other situations in my life where it could’ve been the opposite. It could have been like, ‘Man, would you rather be walking on both your legs?’ Or, ‘Would you rather still have all your limbs and what not?’ These scenarios of whether you’re getting $24 million or someone else is getting 46 — to me, that’s irrelevant.”
Villanueva also has expressed ambivalence about receiving the Bronze Star because a soldier he rescued, Private First Class Jesse Dietrich, later died.
“In my case, my platoon was hammered time after time,” Villanueva told ESPN. “A lot of people were getting wounded, and a lot of people were getting hurt. When you have leaders that are still carrying the team and still pushing, they’ll find an opportunity to say that night, 25th of August, this guy was overwhelmed, and he reacted by putting his own life at risk.”
“But if you truly think about it, that’s what I was supposed to do,” he added. “Because what was I going to do, leave the guy out there?”
Even before Villanueva’s harrowing experiences overseas, those who knew him at West Point said it would have been hard for him to miss the national anthem.
“He has an intense love for his country, and he always did the utmost to make that apparent,” said Captain Harrison, who is now a student at the Army’s Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kan.