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Al Villanueva, in his own words



I'll first address the last 48-hours of events that has transpired. This national anthem sort of ordeal has been out of control and I think there is a lot to blame on myself and I want to address it. Saturday night, as you guys all know, there was a team meeting that was going to determine what we were going to do. As a team, coach Tomlin gave us the guidance that we had to do it as one, so 100% in whatever it is what we had to do. There was a disagreement in what we were going to do and the only course of action was to go inside and remove ourselves from the situation. It was never to disrespect the national anthem. Every single one of my teammates is extremely supportive and patriotic in this locker room and I cannot only say that for this locker room, I can say that across the NFL and every single player that I have gone against.

After the meeting, based on my unique circumstances and based the fact that I served in the Army and pretty much that is my life is lived through the military, I asked Ben [Roethlisberger] if there was a way to define the inside or where we going to stay and if I could watch the national anthem from the tunnel. He agreed. He said the captains would be out there right behind me so this plan kind of morphed to accommodate this tough moral dilemma in my hands to where the players could be behind me in the tunnel. Ben Roethlisberger said at 56, make sure you're out there because the national anthem is going to start at 57. I walked out at 12:56.

I asked one of the security guards when the national anthem was going to start and he said 20-seconds and so I just walked up and I stopped as soon as I saw the flag. Soon as I had a vantage point. That to me was enough. There was a flag that was coming in from the previous celebrations and when I turned around to sort of signal everybody else to come so they wouldn't leave me alone that's when they were essentially unable to exit. At that moment, it was the decision of do you walk out of the national anthem and join your teammates, I know that would have looked extremely bad. Or as a team do you start moving halfway through the anthem. So essentially what we can get out of this is that we butchered our plan to sort of have a response for the national anthem and respect everyone's opinion.

I would say that my personal thoughts on the situations is that regardless of this plan. Very few players knew that I was going to the tunnel because I only asked the team leadership and because of that I did not give them an opportunity to stand with me during the national anthem. That is the very embarrassing part on my end in what transpired. When everybody sees an image of me standing by myself, everybody thinks that the team and the Steelers are behind and that's absolutely wrong. It's quite the opposite. 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 extreme circumstances. That at Soldier Field, at the heat of the moment, when I got soldiers, wounded veterans texting me that I have to be out there I think everything would have been put aside from every single one of my teammates no doubt. Because of that I made coach Tomlin look bad, and that is my fault, and that is my fault only. I made my teammates look bad and that is my fault, my fault only. And I made the Steelers also look bad and that is my fault and my fault only.

So unwillingly I have made a mistake. I talked to my teammates about the situation. Hopefully they understand it, if they don't I still have to deal with it because the nature of this debate is causing a lot of very heated reaction from fans, players, and its underserving to all the players and coaches from this organization and with that I'll open up to any questions.

Al, would you be ok if your teammates if some of them sit or stand?
Yeah, absolutely. There's been players that have gone out of their way to thank me for my service. The arch rivals in the AFC North. Terrell Suggs, Michael Johnson, John Harbaugh, they've gone out of their way after a game to thank me for my service. And it's not because of me, it's because I'm a solider, I could be soldier x and they're out there thanking me. Out of all these players in the NFL that are taking a knee, as a veteran I don't take offense. In a big picture where there's customized different things. Nobody thinks that when you're taking a knee you're offending the flag and they're saying it and I don't think anybody that is standing for the flag is not respecting the fact that there are a lot of injustices and racial divide in our country. So we are essentially talking about two different things but the problem is that it's interpreted as disrespectful to the flag and at the end of the day people have to live with those consequences. Colin Kaepernick did and there's a lot that can be said about his adventure of starting this process but I take no offense. I don't think veterans at the end of the day take any offense. They actually signed up and fought so someone can take a knee and protest peacefully whatever it is that their heart's desire.

What did you express to your teammates about the potential not being seeing the field?
There's a lot of levels and there's a lot of reasons why people join the army but at the end of the day it happens all the time, people die for the flag. There's no way else to put it. When somebody is about to go on a mission, somebody is loading up, somebody is ready to go. There is nothing else that is going to justify other than the men left and right dying for that mission. I wish I could stay home. I wish we could all play Call of Duty and not have to go to war. Some men and some women sign up for this tough challenge and they have to do it for the flag. When I see a flag on a mission, on the shoulder of a soldier, that reminds me that guy is with me. I have to fight and lay my life down for him. Whether it's in my unit, whether it's Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, it doesn't matter. You're going to have a flag on your shoulder, I'm going to identify that and I'm fighting for each other. So, that's what the flag means to me. That's what the flag means to a lot of veterans. Wounded warriors that don't have legs, that have straps on their legs, they stand up and salute the national anthem. It means a lot to them, it means a lot to me and I think my teammates respected this thoroughly. It was just not communicated and the plan did not allow them the chance to get out and support me or maybe go back to lab and sit five more hours before the game figure out a plan. I thought we had to go to bed, work something in the middle. Unfortunately, I threw them under the bus unintentionally.

You have one of the highest selling jerseys, people are treating as a hero that stood up because of these pictures, what would you say to people that are trying to put you up there?  *
It's completely wrong. And every single time I see that picture of me standing by myself I feel embarrassed to a degree because again, unintentionally I left my teammates behind. 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 can stand in the tunnel, nobody could see me, and then afterwards I wouldn't talk to the media like I do all the time. I will avoid guys. I'll shower and bring my clothes and never address you guys and two weeks later you guys would be talking about something else. So, that is what was in my head what was going to happen. Steelers not showing up for the national anthem, there's a debate nationally about whether what's right or wrong. Everything goes down, we go back to talking about North Korea, the healthcare bill, and then we play the Baltimore Ravens and we forget about it. You guys know me for the guys that come in the locker room at the time. I hate attention. I don't like it. I will give you clichés so you guys will leave me alone but when it comes to this it's a difficult situation and I don't like the attention. At the end of the day, the reason whether I want it or not, whether it was my intent to plan or not, the reason that I went out there by myself is the reason that is causing all of this distress. It is making the organization look bad, my coach look bad, and my teammates look bad. Anybody who thinks that coach Tomlin is not as patriotic as you can get in America or anyone of my teammates or the owner, I take offense to that. So that is kind of how I feel when I see myself standing alone during the national anthem.

Do you think the President should apologize for calling NFL players derogatory names or for dragging you guys into this in the first place?
You guys do this for a living. You enjoy and you guys comment on what the President says. I play football. I don't have anything to say about the Commander-in-Chief and his decisions. I've been following orders when I was in the military and now. I'm not responsible enough to make a comment about the president. I just stick to football. I respect if other players want to talk about the president and his decisions, but I have a lot on my plate. I have to play to a standard. I have to represent the Steelers organization, so I have nothing to comment about what the president says.

What did you learn about how the country views this issue that can be divisive?
I'm going to give credit to coach [Mike] Munchak because he's the one who kind of deciphered it for all of us. We're not talking about the same thing. That's the thing people understand when it comes to the national anthem. And I was one of the first ones who took offense when Colin Kaepernick took a knee. I was one of the first ones who did an interview, and to a certain degree, I never criticized him but I didn't agree with it. 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 injustices in America. And people who stand 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 a 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 the president made, 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. So it's just been a very unfortunate 48-hours for me.

Do you think you'll be able to go back to the anonymity you seek?
I'm always going to stand up for the national anthem. Coach Tomlin could've picked any other tackle in the NFL to develop and turn into a starting left tackle. I have to be real with myself and understand that the reason why I'm playing here, the reason the Steelers have me playing here is that I served in the military and they saw something in that story that attracted them. The Philadelphia Eagles cut me, and I was the first player to be cut in Philadelphia. The only person to call me was Coach Tomlin, so I don't know. To a certain degree, I really don't care. I can't go out there and pick you up if you're taking a knee or make you put you hand on your heart or sing the national anthem. I really don't care. I'm going to stand up for the national anthem. I'll support all my teammates. All my teammates have always supported me. All my coaches have always supported me. There are 32 teams out there. I got cut from Philadelphia and the only one to call me was Mike Tomlin. It was because he saw some character traits that might help me become a future starter, and he did. And so for me, I'm not going to control that. If the whole NFL wants to kneel down, stand up, go to the Army Navy store and buy uniforms, it doesn't matter. I'm just trying to play football.

Can you share what your teammates have said to you, and in some strange way, has this brought the team even closer together?
I would say this, the team meeting that we had on Saturday night brought the whole team together. Absolutely, it really did. We had great conversations between people who felt some type of way, and we completely understood that everything that was going on outside the building was not in our control and we were going to do something together. Unfortunately, I felt the pressure of having to find some middle-ground so I could at least be there for the national anthem. My teammates wanted to do that. It got butchered because of this flag thing. Maybe and hopefully if this is a really big deal, they'll find videos of people bringing out the flag. You'll be able to tell they could not leave the locker room. But how would you feel if you were a player, I'm not going to name them, but I would say almost all of them, I couldn't even tell you who was going to take a knee. But all my teammates wanted to stand up for the national anthem. They did not want this to be a distraction at all. Their first course of action was to go out there and stand up, but in order to remove any doubt of [people deciding to kneel] at the last second, we decided to stay away from the situation. Not protest it, but stay away from the situation. And how would you feel if you were somebody who really wanted to go out there and stand up for the national anthem and you didn't know that there was a player who was going to stand up there in the tunnel and see it from a vantage point? I would be really pissed because now he's getting all the heat. Obviously, I don't have social media but they have social media, and their getting negative feedback because they didn't stand up for the national anthem when in reality they would've done it. They were fighting to stand up for the national anthem. Everybody on the offensive line was very adamant about just stand up for the national anthem. Who cares? We understand there are a lot of problems out there. But I didn't give them a chance based on the fact that I told very few people, that there were going to be a selective few that were going to go out there. We were just trying to come up with a middle-ground plan so that I would at least get to see the national anthem, some other players would, but if you have a different type of view, you could stay in the locker room.

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