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Jeremy Fowler, ESPN Staff Writer 45d

Alejandro Villanueva supports special forces for 'My Cause My Cleats'

NFL, Pittsburgh Steelers

Pittsburgh Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva is supporting a personal military cause with his game day cleats this week.

As part of the NFL's "My Cause My Cleats" initiative, Villanueva -- an Army Ranger before joining the NFL -- will represent the Special Operations Warrior Foundation in Sunday's matchup with the Arizona Cardinals.

The foundation supports the families of special operations soldiers severely wounded or killed in combat. It specializes in helping the officers' young children, raising money to lift family burdens or promote academic success for children through their formative years.

Villanueva served as a member of the 75th Ranger Regiment, an Army Special Forces unit, before signing on to the Steelers' practice squad in 2014 and becoming a starting offensive lineman. Villanueva said special operators have faced increased combat risks since the U.S. started moving troops out of Afghanistan earlier this decade.

"In my case there's a sense of urgency that as a nation we need to make sure the families of service members are taken care of," Villanueva said. "There are a lot of [special operations officers] employed worldwide, and some of them get killed and nobody is honoring them. I'm excited for them to get more awareness."

About 7,000 special operations officers are deployed worldwide and account for nearly 75% of the combat casualties per year, according to the SOWF.

Villanueva is a private person but supports various military causes, often meeting with veterans in the Pittsburgh area.

In 2017, he presented teammates with military helmet decals representing various Army divisions that fit each player's personality.

"As a football player, it's not a secret to me or anybody that your platform influences people and people are going to listen and see what you're doing," said Villanueva, whose background made him a prominent figure in the league's controversy over players kneeling during the national anthem a few years ago. "When I use that platform, which is associated with the military and veterans, it does speak to me."

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