Steelers embarrassed over anthem mix-up
Alejandro Villanueva, who stood on his own for the US national anthem while his Pittsburgh Steelers team-mates 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 Donald 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.
"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 the opposite."
The Steelers met as a team on Saturday to discuss how to handle the anthem following 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.
Villanueva reached out to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, asking if he could be at the front of the pack and was told to meet in the tunnel four minutes before kick-off. 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."