Former West Point football player Alejandro Villanueva was in the news this week after he chose to honor a war hero on his helmet while playing in a Monday night football game with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Villanueva — a former Army Ranger — covered up the name of the Antwon Rose Jr. with the name of Alwyn Cashe. Rose, an unarmed Black teenager, was shot and killed by a white East Pittsburgh police officer in 2018 as he fled the scene of a traffic stop. Cashe died in 2005 after suffering second- and third-degree burns in an attempt to save his fellow soldiers from a burning vehicle in Iraq.
The rest of the Steelers wore Rose’s name on their helmets and Villanueva’s decision sparked some controversy, mostly on social media. Rose’s mother, Michelle Kenney, said this to ESPN:
“I feel like with (Maurkice) Pouncey, like with Villanueva, if you didn’t want to wear Antwon’s name, say that and don’t do it. Don’t set the movement backwards because of your own personal agenda. Because this is bigger than Antwon. Antwon’s gone. I’m trying to save the life of the next Black person.”
Here’s a few things you should know about this story and Villanueva’s tribute to Cashe:
- Two days after Villanueva wore the name of Sgt. 1st Class Cashe on his helmet, news broke that a bipartisan group of lawmakers (Reps. Michael Waltz R-Fla., Stephanie Murphy D-Fla., and Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas) introduced a bill that would waive a requirement that the Medal of Honor be presented within five years of the heroic action it recognizes — paving the way for Cashe to be properly honored.
- Cashe was a Florida native who served in the first Gulf War and then two tours in Iraq before dying in Nov. 2005 from fatal injuries he suffered while trying to save his fellow soldiers from a burning vehicle. He is survived by his wife and daughter.
- The Military Times describes Cashe’s heroic events this way: “Cashe was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for his repeated rescue attempts, which resulted in second and third degree burns over nearly 75 percent of his body. Witnesses said that even as the heat burned his uniform and body armor off of him, Cashe continued to ignore the pain to pull his men out of the fire.”
- According to CNN, if Cashe is awarded the Medal of Honor, he would be the “first Black service member to be honored with that distinction for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan.”
- Learn more about Cashe’s story here and here.
- Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said he was aware of Villanueva’s decision to cover up Rose’s name with Cashe’s. The lineman had his head coach’s approval: “This is in line with everything we said about participating in elements of social justice this off-season,” Tomlin said. Tomlin also added: “As a head coach of the organization, we’re going to support our players however they choose to participate and express themselves, as long as they do so thoughtfully and with class. And so I think it needs no further explanation in terms of our support for Al Villanueva.”
- However, team captains Ben Roethlisberger and Cam Heyward said they were “unaware” of Villanueva’s intentions to honor Cashe.
- “I was under the impression that you could put whatever you want on your helmet,” Steelers linebacker Vince Williams said. “... I don’t really care what Al has on the back of his helmet. He could’ve put that shit on the front of his helmet. I don’t really care at all, to be honest with you. As long as he’s lining up at left tackle and he’s blocking people and Ben is upright and we ain’t got to go through another Ben-less season, I don’t give a damn if he wore a baseball helmet.”
- It seems like the decision to wear Rose’s name on the back of the Steelers’ helmets wasn’t one made by the players. Pittsburgh safety Minkah Fitzpatrick told ESPN: “It was mostly made from people upstairs and everything else like that. Don’t know exactly who. Don’t know exactly how. But we did. We knew that we were going to have somebody on the back of our helmets, and it wasn’t exactly clear on what it was going to be. It was mostly made by everyone upstairs.”
- Villanueva played football for the Army Black Knights and graduated from West Point. He is a native of Meridian, Mississippi and his father was a Spanish Naval Officer for NATO. At West Point, Villanueva featured in 16 games as a defensive lineman and wide receiver, hauling in five receiving touchdowns. After football, he became an Army Ranger and served three tours in Afghanistan. He was awarded several medals for his service, including the Bronze Star. Since joining the Steelers in 2014, he has started 75 games at left tackle and has twice been named to the Pro Bowl.
- Former Steelers’ offensive lineman Marcus Gilbert tweeted his support for Villanueva.
I’d be disappointed if guys don’t come out to defend Alejandro Villanueva. The mob is constantly working to divide our country with their false narratives...Have to stand up to these people. Al is one of my all-time favorite teammates, a veteran, a great person and a great friend— Marcus Gilbert (@MarcusGilbert88) September 17, 2020