Alejandro Villanueva (born September 22, 1988) is an American football offensive tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers of the National Football League (NFL). Villanueva was a Captain in the United States Army, in which he served as an Army Ranger and was decorated with a Bronze Star for valor. He played college football for the Army Black Knights, being recruited at one position and playing three others during the course of his career. After serving three tours of duty in Afghanistan, he signed a contract with the Philadelphia Eagles on May 5, 2014, after working out in a regional showcase.
On August 21, 2014, during a pre-season game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Villanueva was spotted by Steelers’ head coach Mike Tomlin, who was impressed with his size and athleticism. Eight days after he was waived by the Philadelphia Eagles, the Pittsburgh Steelers signed him to their practice squad on August 31, 2014. Upon joining his new team, he was immediately changed from a defensive end to an offensive tackle, as it was thought to better suit him. As a defensive end for the Eagles, Villanueva weighed 250 lb. Within a year of becoming an offensive tackle, he rose up to 340 lb.
Throughout the 2014 season, Villanueva was kept on the practice squad to learn the position, put on more weight, and develop his abilities. He made his debut the following year during the 2015 season opener against the New England Patriots, playing five snaps as an extra tackle on goal-line plays.
On September 24, 2017, prior to a game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field, the Steelers did not take the field for the national anthem in order to avoid getting caught up in the controversy related to players kneeling or displaying other signs of racial protest around the NFL started by Colin Kaepernick.
Villanueva was the lone member of the Steelers to appear publicly for the national anthem, standing in front of the entrance tunnel for the performance while the rest of the team remained in the locker room. Head coach Mike Tomlin stated a wish to simply play the game and not allow for any show of support one way or the other on the issue. Likely as a result of this, Villanueva’s jersey became the top selling jersey on the NFL’s official store in the 24 hour period after Sunday’s games started. The move caught some of his teammates and coach Tomlin by surprise. Later, Villanueva apologized for his appearance saying, “I see that picture of me standing by myself and I’m embarrassed to a degree, because unintentionally I left my teammates behind.”
At a press conference the day after, he said, “Unfortunately, I threw my teammates under the bus, unintentionally… Every single time I see that picture of me, standing by myself, I feel embarrassed.”
In additional comments, 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.”
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