Many times we only hear about NFL players in the news for the wrong reasons: when they run afoul of the law; when they are sued for bad behavior; or when they utter something on social media that makes people cringe. But Alejandro Villanueva is not one of those people. 

The former West Point cadet who was an officer in the Ranger Regiment and served three tours of combat in Afghanistan and now is a star player for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the NFL, has been in the news a few times …for all the right reasons.

This weekend, Villanueva will be supporting a military cause with his football cleats. As part of the NFL’s “My Cause My Cleats” program, Villanueva will represent the Special Operations Warrior Foundation in Sunday’s matchup with the Arizona Cardinals.

From the NFL:

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As part of the collaboration between the NFL and players, players will represent hundreds of charitable organizations that focus on causes from youth wellness to sex trafficking prevention and support for single parents.

Players will have the opportunity to raise money for their cause by auctioning their cleats off at NFL Auction; 100 percent of the money raised will be donated to the player’s charities. Fans may bid on game-issued player cleats to help players raise funds for their chosen causes.

Offensive linemen, rarely hear their names called unless they’re doing something wrong. But Villaneuva is one of the better left tackles, which protect the quarterback’s blind side, in the game today. 

A couple of years ago, when the League was in a big flap about whether players should kneel during the national anthem — an issue which was given even more airplay due to President Trump’s tweets — the NFL took a beating on social media, especially with veterans and active-duty personnel. With several players on the Steelers deciding that they would take a knee, head coach Mike Tomlin tried to diffuse the situation by holding the entire team inside until the anthem had been played. 

But Villanueva never wavered, he went out of the tunnel and stood by himself with his hand over his heart. While Tomlin may have been a bit embarrassed his directive to the team being disobeyed, he had no issues with his player standing up for his own beliefs — and neither did any of his teammates. 

Villanueva came out of the tunnel alone and stood for the national anthem a few years ago. The team had opted to remain inside.

The Special Operations Warrior Foundation supports the families of SOF troops who are killed or severely wounded in combat. It specializes in helping the officers’ young children; raising money to lift family burdens; or promoting academic success for children through educational scholarships.

In an interview, Villanueva spoke about the role Special Operations Forces play in being the tip of the spear in the ongoing wars and about his feeling of honoring them. 

“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 troops] employed worldwide, and some of them get killed and nobody is honoring them. I’m excited for them to get more awareness.”

Villanueva was awarded a Bronze Star for Valor during a firefight in Afghanistan in August, 2011. His men were surrounded in an Afghan village and three of them were wounded. As their platoon leader, Villanueva dragged all three men out of the line of fire to a safer place where the platoon medic could treat them. 

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The medic then told him that the injured men needed to be moved to a safer place. Undaunted, Villanueva carried one of the injured men on his shoulders, as they moved to a school in the village and awaited exfiltration. Unfortunately, one of his injured soldiers, Jesse Dietrich, died of his wounds.  

In an earlier interview with ESPN, Villanueva recounted that fateful night. “As the platoon leader, I feel responsible for everything my platoon does or fails to do,” he said. “I failed to keep Jesse Dietrich safe, and you know, it was just tough. … I keep thinking of other ways I would have done it, but it was a very tough mission and the enemy beat us that day. It was just a really bad night.”

“In my case, my platoon was hammered time after time. A lot of people were getting wounded, and a lot of people were getting hurt,” Villanueva said. “When you have leaders that are still carrying the team and still pushing, they’ll find an opportunity to say that night, 25th of August, this guy was overwhelmed, and he reacted by putting his own life at risk.”

“But if you truly think about it, that’s what I was supposed to do,” he added. “Because what was I going to do, leave the guy out there? Am I going to just sit (while) an 18-year-old is screaming for help, and I was the guy who brought him out there? Am I just going to sit back and not do anything? Because what you’re supposed to do is to go get the guy and help him.”

So on Sunday when the Steelers take on the Cardinals, Villanueva will be supporting thousands of Special Operations warriors far from home as well as the families of those who won’t be coming home. 

“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,” he said. “When I use that platform, which is associated with the military and veterans, it does speak to me.”