Al Villanueva's helmet change catches Pittsburgh Steelers teammates by surprise

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers chose to wear the name of Antwon Rose Jr., a Black teenager killed by East Pittsburgh police in 2018, on the backs of their helmets for the entire 2020 season -- but one player had a different name on his helmet Monday night, which came as a surprise to some teammates.

Offensive lineman Al Villanueva changed the name on his helmet to that of Army Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe, a Black soldier who was killed on duty in Iraq and was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for heroism.

Villanueva, a former Army Ranger, covered up Rose's name and wrote Cashe's name in its place. Villanueva had informed coach Mike Tomlin about the change, but his teammates were caught off guard.

"I was surprised by what Al did," defensive captain Cam Heyward said Wednesday. "You'll have to talk to him in the future, but in this country, we're given the freedom to do and support those that mean a lot to us."

Said quarterback Ben Roethlisberger: "I did not know about Al's choice for the back of his helmet. That's his choice. That's the amazing thing about the country we live in. Unfortunately, it is what it is."

On Tuesday night, Rose's mother, Michelle Kenney, expressed her disappointment with Villanueva's modification to his helmet.

"Let me very very very clear," she wrote on Facebook. "The Pittsburgh Steelers took a team vote. Obviously one person didn't like the results so they chose to do something different. I have nothing against vets and absolutely appreciate everything that they have done and continue to do for us. But this one person showed us exactly who he is and obviously he didn't approve of how the vote turned out. In my opinion; that's for his coach, team and organization to address NOT ME! While he was so busy being negative what it actually did now forced more people to engage in this conversation.

"I'm going to use this negative press and negativity to motivate me to hold the Pittsburgh Steelers even more accountable!!! Yes I believe in second chances but as we all know I believe in putting in the work and that's how I base my collaborations. They came to me as a team/organization and I don't care how good of an individual you are; if you are not a TEAM player then maybe you are playing for the wrong team!!!"

Tomlin said Villanueva talked about the change with him, and he supported his player.

"He did discuss that with me," Tomlin said Tuesday. "And this is in line with everything we said about participating in elements of social justice this offseason. As an organization and myself as a head coach of an organization, we are going to support our players in however they choose to participate and express themselves or to not participate or not express themselves, as long as they do so thoughtfully and with class."

Villanueva was in the middle of a debate about national anthem demonstrations in 2017 when he stood in front of the tunnel with his hand over his heart during the anthem in Chicago while his teammates decided as a group to remain in the locker room.

"Was it perfect at the end of the day? No," Heyward, a vocal member of the team's social justice committee, said of Villanueva's helmet change. "As a collective unit, we wanted to support [Rose's] family and bring awareness."