Steelers surprised by Villanueva's decision to take field for national anthem

In the hours after President Donald Trump called out the league during a Friday rally, players, teams, team owners, the NFLPA, the league and former coaches and players-turned TV analysts have all criticized the president for his divisive remarks. The Steelers went so far as to stay in the locker room during the national anthem ahead of their 1 p.m. start in Chicago, and the Seahawks and Titans remained in the locker room during the anthem ahead of their 4 p.m. matchup.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin told CBS Sports sideline reporter Jamie Erdahl why the team wouldn't participate in the national anthem:

"You know, these are very divisive times for our country and for us as a football team it's about us remaining solid," Tomlin said. "We're not going to be divided by anything said by anyone. ... "[I told our players] if you feel the need to do anything I'm going to be supportive of that -- as Americans you have that right. But whatever we do we're going to do 100 percent, we're going to do together. We're not going to let divisive times or divisive individuals affect our agenda."

But one Steelers player didn't remain in the locker room during the anthem. Starting left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, who was an Army Ranger before joining the NFLstood just outside the player's tunnel at Soldier Field. It was a development that took some of his teammates by surprise.

ESPN's Jeremy Fowler explains:

The starting left tackle was a key figure in the team's protest planning because of his background. Players wanted to accommodate Villanueva, who expressed during their 30-minute session that he didn't want to be singled out, the source said. Moving the protest off the field entirely was a way to keep solidarity without isolating an individual.

After discussing several options, the players moved their locker-room plan into the tunnel because of time constraints.  So why did Villanueva leave?

"I don't want to go into that, but we support our guy Al," defensive end Cam Heyward said. "He feels he had to do it. This guy served our country, and we thank him for it."

Right guard David DeCastro added: "Al is a unique circumstance, what he's been through, some of the things he's talked about before. I've got a lot of respect for Al. I wish there was a different way to do this thing. We've got some people who look at the national anthem as patriotism, soldiers, all the stuff that it means, and obviously, people are upset, and I understand that. I just wish both sides understand that they want the right thing, but doing it through the national anthem, I wish there was a different way."

After the game Tomlin, who said he notified the commissioner about the team's intentions, was asked about Villanueva being the only Steelers player on the field at that time. 

"Like I said, I was looking for a hundred percent participation," Tomlin told reporters. "We're going to be respectful of our football team. Man, these are divisive times in the United States. and it's a shame, but it is, but we're not politicians. We're coaches and professional athletes. If those of us are individuals choose to participate in politics in some way, I'm going to be supportive of that, but when we come out of locker rooms, we come out of locker rooms to play football games, and to be quite honest with you I didn't appreciate our football team being drug into politics this weekend. And I'm sure that's a global perspective. 

"But, we're blessed to do this for a living, and so with that blessing comes responsibility. We understand that. We understand that we're given a platform that's a unique one. Many of us are called to maybe do things that we wouldn't normally do because of that platform, where people apply pressure to us to do things because of that platform. The bottom line is we chose not to play ball today in that regard. Maybe we will, but today, we just said no."

The Steelers came out flat against the previously winless Bears and eventually lost in overtime. Tomlin was asked if the pregame decisions impacted his team's performance during the game.

"I don't. ... The big thing is that we remain united," he said. "These teams, this game of football is a unique one. We're all blessed to be a part of it. We all get tolerances because of people that are different because of our association with ball. I think that anybody that's involved with ball has a high level of tolerance, has a high level of understanding. We feel bad for people that aren't involved in football, that don't get an opportunity to have a brother that's very different than him next to him that he has to rely on, so you gain an understanding. 

"We will not be divided by this. We've got a group of men in there that come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, races, creed, ethnicities, and religions, and so forth. That's football. That's a lot of team sports. But because of our position, we get drugged into bulls---, to be quite honest with you. And so, some have opinions, some don't. We wanted to protect those that don't; we wanted to protect those that do. We came here to play a football game today, and that was our intentions."

CBS Sports Writer

Ryan Wilson has been an NFL writer for CBS Sports since June 2011, and he's covered five Super Bowls in that time. Ryan previously worked at AOL's FanHouse from start to finish, and Football Outsiders... Full Bio

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