Taking a knee: Pittsburgh Steelers’ Alejandro Villanueva says he stood on his own by accident

Sports Staff
The situation is 'quite the opposite' of what everyone thinks, Villanueva explains: TNS via Getty Images

Alejandro Villanueva, who stood on his own for the national anthem while his Pittsburgh Steelers teammates sat in the locker room, insists the whole thing was an accident.

The former soldier, who served three tours of Afghanistan, became an unwitting celebrity for his unintentional act, with Trump supporters holding him up as a bastion of patriotism following days of protests and angry tweets.

Villanueva’s jersey even became the most popular selling on the NFL website over the weekend.

Little did everyone know the truth of the situation. Saluting the colours had everything to do with miscommunication and nothing to do with him setting himself apart from the organisation, 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.

Roethlisberger said the entire team would 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.