In a not-so-surprising turn of events, Pittsburgh Steelers offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva wrote the name “Alwyn Cashe” on his helmet on Monday night. The rest of the team had “Antwon Rose Jr.” on their helmets.

The Steelers, like many NFL teams, were recognizing victims of color that have been killed by the police. The NFL is allowing teams to wear helmet decals for the entire 2020 season, honoring those who have been killed. The Steelers decided as a team to honor Rose, a black teenager who was shot in the back by a white police officer in Pittsburgh in 2018 after he ran from a vehicle that was pulled over. A former East Pittsburgh officer was charged with Rose’s murder, but a jury found him not guilty in March 2019.

Villanueva’s helmet featuring Alwyn Cashe’s name. (Twitter)

Villanueva covered up Rose’s name and hand wrote Cashe’s name on the back of his helmet. Alwyn Cashe was an African-American soldier who died trying to save his fellow soldiers who were burning to death after an IED attack in Iraq in 2005. 

Cashe, an NCO in the 3rd Infantry Division, was on a combat patrol on October 17, 2005, in Samarra, Iraq, when a roadside bomb detonated near the Bradley fighting vehicle carrying him and his fellow soldiers. Despite being on fire himself, Cashe repeatedly returned to the burning vehicle to rescue burning soldiers.

Cashe, 35 at the time, suffered fatal burns while trying to rescue his fellow soldiers. He died on November 8 of that year at the Brooke Army Medical Center, Fort Sam Houston, in San Antonio, Texas. At the time, he was awarded a Silver Star Medal. Now Cashe is being considered for the Medal of Honor. 

Why aren’t Villanueva’s actions so surprising? Because he is a graduate of the U.S. military academy at West Point. He served in the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment and was awarded a Bronze Star for valor in combat against the Taliban. 

NFL player and former Ranger Alejandro Villanueva supporting Special Operations Warrior Foundation

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Villanueva as a member of the Ranger Regiment during his Army career. (U.S. Army)

This isn’t the first time he’s broken with a “full team decision” for following his own beliefs. During the 2017 NFL season, the Steelers had announced that none of their players would come out of the locker room for the playing of the national anthem before a regularly scheduled game. At the time, Head coach Mike Tomlin said that while many players were taking a knee during the playing of the anthem to protest racial injustice, the Steelers would remain in the locker room to avoid making a statement. 

“Whatever we do, we’re going to do 100 percent. We’re going to do it together,” Tomlin had said at the time. But Villanueva had broken from that decision and had stood alone for the anthem outside the locker room at the entrance of Soldiers’ Field in Chicago. 

He had later apologized to his teammates for making them look bad since they were to appear unified. While he had said that he respected the other players’ decision to kneel during the anthem and it wasn’t disrespectful of the flag, for him the meaning was more personal.

“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.”

So, this time, before Monday night’s game, the Steelers announced that all players would wear Antwon Rose’s name on their helmets. Villanueva told coach Tomlin of his decision to handwrite Alwyn Cashe’s on his helmet. Tomlin was asked about Villanueva during his regular weekly news conference on Tuesday.

Tomlin said that Villanueva cleared the decision with him, and the team is supportive of thoughtful expressions like Villanueva’s.

One person who didn’t approve of Villanueva’s actions was Rose’s mother, Michelle Kenney, who took to Twitter to blast Villanueva’s decision, which she called “being negative.” She said the following:

“Let me very very very clear. 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; [sic] 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, who’s been head coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers since 2007, said the team would allow Villanueva to continue to honor Cashe.”We’re 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,” he said.

“That has been a blanket approach that we’ve had, and so I think it needs no further explanation in terms of our support for Al Villanueva or anyone else in terms of what they do or don’t do in regards to social justice,” Tomlin added.