COOK: Al Villanueva always stood tall with the Pittsburgh Steelers

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
Pittsburgh Steelers offensive tackle and former Army Ranger Alejandro Villanueva (78) stands outside the tunnel alone during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Chicago Bears, Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

The Pittsburgh Steelers have had many great players through the years — 23 Hall of Famers, many of whom contributed to the franchise's six Super Bowl championships.

But I want to talk about Steelers heroes this morning. My list starts with two men: Rocky Bleier and Al Villanueva.

War heroes, both.

Bleier became a key figure on the four Super Bowl teams in the 1970s after a part of his right foot was blown off by a grenade in Vietnam in 1969. They made a movie about him and wrote books telling his amazing, inspiring story. He remains, at 75, an unforgettable character in Pittsburgh sports lore, an absolute icon.

Villanueva wasn't a part of any Super Bowl teams, but he also should be remembered here forever. He was a captain in the United States Army and then a prestigious Army Ranger, serving three tours of duty in Afghanistan and receiving a Bronze Star for valor. He started all 87 games, including playoff games, for the Steelers at offensive tackle the past five seasons after failing tryouts as a tight end with the Cincinnati Bengals and Chicago Bears and playing briefly as a defensive end with the Philadelphia Eagles. He signed a two-year, $14 million deal as a free agent with the Baltimore Ravens on Tuesday with $8 million guaranteed.

Good for Big Al.

Better for the Ravens.

I once ran into Shaquille O'Neal in a hotel hallway. He's the biggest human I've ever seen in person. Villanueva might be No. 2 on that list. But, in some ways, he's even bigger than life.

All of the players in the Steelers' locker room are respected for their football ability. Villanueva is respected by everyone in the organization because of his football talent, sure, but also because of the man he is, the selfless way he fought for his country and the odds he overcame to become an NFL starter. It won't take long for him to gain that same respect in Baltimore. He is impossible not to respect.

Clash of worlds: It hasn't always been easy for Villanueva to balance the demands of his two worlds, as an honored American military man and as a devoted NFL teammate. Occasionally, those worlds clashed.

I think of the infamous national anthem game in Chicago in 2017. Many NFL players were infuriated that President Donald Trump made profane comments a few days earlier about players who refused to stand for the anthem. That led to protests all over the league. The Steelers, after an emotional meeting the night before the game, agreed to stay in the tunnel for the anthem, but TV cameras caught Villanueva a few steps out of the tunnel with his hand over his heart, mouthing the words.

He apologized after he was widely criticized for breaking ranks with his teammates, saying he ended up on the field unintentionally and didn't mean to "throw them under the bus." What his critics didn't realize was that he received countless messages from fellow servicemen and servicewomen, many of whom had been injured in battle or knew soldiers who were killed fighting for the flag, begging him to stand proudly for the anthem.

Something similar happened at the first game last season against the New York Giants. It was at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement. The Steelers voted to wear the name of Antwon Rose Jr. — a Black teenager killed by police in 2018 — on the back of their helmets. Villanueva, with the blessing of Mike Tomlin, had the name Alwyn Cashe on his helmet. Cashe, a Black man, was a sergeant in the United States Army and was killed on duty in Iraq in 2005 after saving six soldiers from a burning vehicle.

"I felt that my decision to honor Sgt. First Class Alwyn Cashe was something that was very personal to me due to the fact that, in the veteran community, there's a strong push to get him a Medal of Honor, which is something that the community believes that he deserves," Villanueva said. "The issues that matter to veterans are incredibly important. I feel like I don't do enough as an American every day to enjoy my liberties. I feel very thankful to have the support of the veteran community and the background to appreciate the freedoms that we all enjoy."

A lot of other players would have been ostracized by teammates for that night in New Jersey and the anthem day in Chicago. That didn't happen with Villanueva.

"It's different for him," Ramon Foster said after the game in Chicago.

Different in so many ways.

An NFL player for a short time, a hero always.