It was also unintended.
Villanueva, a former Army Ranger whose jersey sales skyrocketed after fans saw images of him standing for the anthem at the front of the tunnel alone while his teammates were out of view, said he didn’t mean to be by himself during the anthem. He regretted it happened and said he didn’t mean to make his coach Mike Tomlin or his teammates, who agreed to not go on the field for the anthem as a sign of team unity, look bad.
“Every single time I see that picture of me standing by myself, I feel embarrassed,” Villanueva said, according to the Twitter feed of Chris Adamski of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
That changes the narrative significantly.
How teams are dealing with the national anthem protests and demonstrations is a tough situation to navigate. Not all 53 players on a roster have the same beliefs or political leanings, and not all of them will unanimously agree about what’s right or wrong during the national anthem. A well-run team like the Steelers tried to figure out a solution by staying off the field. They came to that decision as a team in a 15-minute players-only meeting on Saturday night, PennLive.com reported. It ended up with one player who has three tours of duty in Afghanistan standing by himself and unwittingly becoming a symbol for those who disagree with the protests.
“Unfortunately I threw my teammates under the bus, unintentionally,” Villanueva said, according to KDKA-TV.
“We as a team tried to figure it out, obviously we butchered it, I’m not gonna pretend I have some kind of righteous voice.”
Villanueva’s explanation of how he came to be the only player standing at the front of the tunnel for the anthem is a little confusing. He said he asked quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on Saturday night if he could be out in front with the captains during the anthem. Then in the tunnel, he turned around when a Chicago Bears team flag came in, and looked back to his teammates but the anthem had started. He said he couldn’t walk out then.
Some Steelers players said they figured Villanueva was exempt from the plan, but linebacker James Harrison told PennLive.com: “We thought we were all in attention with the same agreement, obviously. But, I guess we weren’t.” As Roethlisberger said on his blog Monday, the whole point of the Steelers’ decision to stay in the locker room during the anthem was to show unity as a team, and avoid appearing divided with players doing different things on the sideline during the anthem. However it happened, there wasn’t 100 percent participation.
“I made my teammates look bad, and that is my fault only,” Villanueva said, according to KDKA. “We as a team tried to figure it out, but obviously butchered it.
“For anybody who thinks coach Tomlin is not as patriotic as you can get in America, I’m offended by that,” Villanueva said. “I made coach Tomlin look bad, and that is my fault, and my fault only.”
Villanueva said his teammates are extremely supportive and patriotic. And he said he has no problem with anyone who kneels during the anthem.
“I will support all my teammates, and all my teammates and all my coaches have always supported me,” Villanueva said.
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More from Yahoo Sports:
• Army veteran goes against Steelers’ anthem plan
• NFL star makes a joke, gets absurd penalty from refs
• 97-year-old WWII vet takes a knee for NFL players
• Pat Forde: Why haven’t we seen anthem protests in college football?