CHICAGO — When the national anthem started at Soldier Field on Sunday, the visiting sideline was mostly empty. The most prominent evidence of the Pittsburgh Steelers was offensive lineman Alejandro Villanueva, a former Army Ranger, standing all by himself near the tunnel, holding his right hand over his heart.
The Steelers stayed off the sideline during the anthem, in protest of President Donald Trump's recent criticism of NFL players, before losing to the Bears in overtime.
Later, Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and several other players said they had no issue with Villanueva not taking part in the protest — "As a team we're behind him 100 percent," cornerback Joe Haden said — but head coach Mike Tomlin did say he'd been hoping for 100 percent participation, while acknowledging the protest was not his decision.
Either way, Villanueva's decision to stand alone is getting him lots of attention.
In the 24 hours since, Villanueva has become the top-selling player in jersey and t-shirt sales in the entire league, Brandon Williams, a spokesman for Fanatics, the company that runs the NFL's official online shop, told the Tampa Bay Times Monday afternoon.
The next-best-selling players over the same time in descending order: Tom Brady, Carson Wentz, Dak Prescott and Aaron Rodgers.
Who is he?
Villanueva, the son of a Spanish naval officer, was born in Mississippi, but grew up in Spain, Rhode Island and Belgium.
Originally recruited as a tight end, in college he played on the offensive and defensive line before seeing time as a wide receiver for Army. When he went undrafted in 2010, he went into military service, where he rose to the rank of captain.
A veteran of the war in Afghanistan, Villanueva served three tours of duty from 2010 to 2013, and was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for Valor according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
In 2014, he was signed by the Eagles before he was cut in camp and signed with the Steelers.
Why did he stand alone?
Villanueva did not speak to reporters after the game on Sunday, but he did speak to the Washington Post on the topic nearly a month before Trump told a crowd at an Alabama rally that he'd like to see players who protest during the national anthem get fired.
At the time, Villanueva explained why he stands during the anthem.
"I do it because of all the veterans, all the soldiers I served with. I wore that flag when I was overseas and doing missions," he said. "If I ever looked to my left or my right, I'd see an American flag. That's the reason why I [stand]. But I think whether you kneel for the national anthem or not has become a bigger issue and a much bigger question than the things they protested about. It's taking away a lot of attention."
What does he think of players who do sit or kneel?
Villanueva has previously lightly criticized kneeling during the anthem, saying that while the country "isn't perfect," he doesn't think sitting down during the anthem is the "most effective" way to do something about the issues minorities face.
But Villanueva's stance on the players who do choose to kneel has been nuanced, and he has supported other players' right to protest.
That Washington Post reporter asked Villanueva about the controversy surrounding quarterback Colin Kaepernick. As the most prominent player to not stand during the anthem in 2016, in protest "against the treatment of blacks in the United States," many believe Kaepernick's decision has prevented him from being signed to a team this year.
"It would be very unfortunate if a player was trying to voice his feelings, his opinions, in a peaceful protest, and because of that he got punished," Villanueva responded. "At the same time, this is also a business. There is money involved. People are trying to make money off the NFL.
"I absolutely think (Kaepernick) was very brave for what he did. I don't necessarily agree with the fact he kneeled down for the national anthem. I also don't understand every single circumstance going on in his life."
Information from the Associated Press, Washington Post and New York Times was used in this report. Times Staff Writer Christopher Spata contributed to this report.