PITTSBURGH -- Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva blames himself for the image of him standing apart from teammates during Sunday's national anthem, saying he unintentionally separated himself in the moments leading up to the anthem.
"When everybody sees the image of me by myself, everybody thinks the team, the Steelers, are not behind me, and that's absolutely wrong. I made Coach [Mike] Tomlin look bad, and that is my fault and my fault only. I made my teammates look bad, and that is my fault and my fault only."
The Steelers decided to stay in the Soldier Field tunnel during the anthem before Sunday's loss against the Chicago Bears in response to comments made by President Donald Trump about anthem protests by NFL players.
Feeling the need to see the flag during the anthem, Villanueva, a former Army Ranger who toured several times in Afghanistan, asked quarterback Ben Roethlisberger if he could stand in front of the tunnel to get a vantage point. Roethlisberger agreed, and Villanueva ventured out while trying to gauge where the flag was. He contemplated turning back, but the anthem had already started at that point. Only the team captains -- Roethlisberger and defensive end Cam Heyward -- knew about this last-second arrangement.
"When everybody sees the image of me by myself, everybody thinks the team, the Steelers, are not behind me, and that's absolutely wrong," Villanueva said. "I made Coach [Mike] Tomlin look bad, and that is my fault and my fault only. I made my teammates look bad, and that is my fault and my fault only."
Villanueva got positioned for the anthem's start at 12:57 p.m. ET, and then turned around to "signal everybody else to come in so they wouldn't leave me alone," he said. But Villanueva said someone carrying a flag from a previous celebration was passing by the tunnel, and the players were unable to exit. Walking back to his teammates "would have looked extremely bad," Villanueva said.
Villanueva called the "national anthem ordeal ... out of control" because of the way it portrayed him as an outcast and the team as not supporting the anthem. Villanueva said he understands why teammates would be frustrated with him. ESPN reported that many Steelers were surprised and confused by Villanueva's isolation since he had said in Saturday's players-only meeting he didn't want to bring attention to himself.
"I see that picture of me standing by myself and I'm embarrassed to a degree, because unintentionally I left my teammates behind," Villanueva said. "It wasn't me stepping forward. I never planned to boycott. ... At the end of the day, whether I want it or not, whether it was my intended plan or not, the reason I went out there by myself is the reason it's causing all this distress."
Villanueva will not stop standing for the anthem, and he said his teammates wanted to stand as well. Roethlisberger and Heyward said the team will be on the sideline during future anthem presentations.
"People die for the flag. There's no way else to put it," Villanueva said. "I wish I could stay at home. I wish we could all play 'Call of Duty' and not have to go to war. But some men, some women sign up for this tough challenge and they have to do it for the flag. When I see a flag on the mission on the shoulder of a soldier, that reminds me that the guy's with me. ... That's what the flag means to me, that's what the flag means to a lot of veterans. I think my teammates respected this thoroughly; it was just not communicated and the plan did not allow them the chance to go out and support me."
Villanueva's place in the spotlight helped him learn more about a divisive issue that he believes shouldn't be divisive. People should realize taking a knee is not a direct protest of the flag or the anthem, said Villanueva, one of the first critics of Colin Kaepernick's method of protest.
"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 Oakland," Villanueva said. "I can't tell you 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's protected by our constitution and our country. It's the freedom of speech. People felt, 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 was not something we were trying to do with the Steelers. We were trying to be unified."