Pittsburgh Steelers offensive tackle and former Army Ranger Alejandro Villanueva stands outside the tunnel alone during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Chicago Bears on Sunday in in Chicago. 

There are more than a few things we need to understand about Alejandro Villanueva, the reluctant hero of this past weekend’s wave of anti-NFL sentiment across our country.

First thing’s first: Villanueva, the son of Spanish nationals, was born in Meridian on Sept. 22, 1988. His father, Spanish Naval officer Ignacio Villanueva, was stationed with NATO forces at Meridian Naval Air Station.

Rick Cleveland

“We know very little about it other than he was born here while his father was stationed here,” a spokesperson in the public affairs office at the Meridian air base said Tuesday morning. “Obviously, we’re proud of what he did and what he stands for.”

Villanueva, 29, grew up in Rhode Island, Spain and Belgium. His preferred childhood sport was rugby, but he was introduced to football while attending a U.S. Department of Defense high school in Belgium. Tall and naturally strong, he quickly acclimated to the sport and eventually played for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. where former New Orleans Saint Stan Brock converted him into an offensive tackle.

He now plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and, as the starting left tackle, earns about $6 million a year. This is after he served three tours in Afghanistan as a much-decorated Army Ranger captain. He was part of a team that rescued wounded soldiers under enemy fire and earned the Bronze Star for Valor for that.

Interesting dude, this Alejandro Villanueva – born in Mississippi, to Spanish parents, raised all over, introduced to football in Belgium, and now reluctant hero to millions. His jersey was the leading NFL apparel seller on Monday.

Before the Steelers’ game at Chicago Sunday, Villanueva stood, alone, hand over his heart, for the National Anthem just outside the tunnel from the Steelers’ locker room at Soldier Field. Instantly, Villanueva became the perfect anti-Colin Kaepernick, celebrated by Fox News and Breitbart. For those who agree with President Trump’s “fire the sons of bitches” treatment of NFL players who kneel during the playing of The Star Spangled Banner, Villanueva has become the poster child.

He is not happy about that.

You can watch his Monday press conference interview here, or simply read the transcript. I recommend that you do.

You will learn that Villanueva has apologized over and over for the appearance that he was intentionally standing alone from his team. He actually thought that teammates would be just behind him in the tunnel. Circumstances prevented that.

You also will learn much more from this most interesting native Mississippian.

“I’m always going to stand for the national anthem,” he says.

But he also says, unlike his president, he holds nothing against those who choose not to do so.

“I take no offense,” Villanueva says. “I don’t think veterans at the end of the day take any offense. They actually signed up and fought so that somebody could take a knee and protest peacefully whatever it is that their hearts desire.”

He went further:

“What people don’t understand is that people who are taking a knee are not saying anything negative about the military. They’re not saying anything negative about the flag. They’re just trying to protest the fact that there are some injustices in America. And for people to stand up for the national anthem, it doesn’t mean that they don’t believe in these racial injustices. They’re just trying to do the right thing. So we as a team tried to figure it out, obviously butchered it.

“But I’ve learned that I don’t know what it’s like to be from Dade County, I don’t know what it’s like to be from Lakeland. I can’t tell you that I know what my teammates have gone through, so I’m not going to pretend like I have the righteous sort of voice to tell you that you should stand up for the national anthem. It is protected by our constitution and by our country. It’s freedom of speech. People felt that based on the comments that the president made, that they had to go out and protect and support Colin Kaepernick. And that’s completely in their right, but it’s not something we were trying to do with the Steelers. We were trying to be unified, and unfortunately, I made the team look sort of all over the place and not unified.”

What this man is telling us is that he fought for the rights of people to freely express themselves as Americans. He chooses to stand proudly, hand over his heart, for the national anthem. That’s his right. Colin Kaepernick chooses not to. That’s his right. Millions watch the NFL. Others will choose not to, and that’s fine.

The point is, Alejandro Villanueva gets it, this first generation American, born in Meridian, Miss. Would that we all.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.

2 replies on “NFL’s reluctant hero defends your freedom to stand or kneel during national anthem”

  1. All his teammates agreed to not go out during National Anthem .. but he did ..
    doesn’t sound like he is teaching a very good lesson

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