PITTSBURGH (AP) — Gradually over the course of the post-bye practice week at Pittsburgh Steelers headquarters, Alejandro Villanueva made the rounds to visit each of his teammates.
The starting left tackle, Villanueva was handing out helmet decals. But these stickers weren't of his team's familiar logo, nor were they even stickers representing the six military branches that players across the NFL are wearing in November.
A West Point graduate, Villanueva had acquired decals representing army infantry divisions from his former school. With the blessing of the Steelers, he wished to distribute them for players to wear on their helmets during the Steelers game on Veterans Day weekend.
And not unlike a parent contemplating the perfect Christmas gift for each of his children, the former Army Ranger was taking special care in choosing the appropriate decal for each teammate.
"Someone like him who served, taking the time out of his day to actually get us individual stickers that represent a certain infantry or a certain division, you always take a lot of pride and admiration in that," linebacker Arthur Moats said.
Moats — a respected veteran teammate of Villanueva's — showed off the ivy-inspired, diamond-shaped logo representing the 4th Infantry Division, a unit that uses the motto, "Steadfast and Loyal." Another example was a decal for the Fort Riley, Kansas-based 1st Infantry Division for Kansas-native lineman B.J. Finney.
Villanueva saved a special decal for the Steelers' cornerbacks corps.
"I believe that we have the best corners in the NFL, so I assign them the best division in (the army), which is the 10th Mountain Division," said Villanueva, who was assigned to the unit for a counter terrorism tour in Afghanistan. "Obviously, I am biased. But I think they really are."
Players across the locker room shook hands with Villanueva upon being presented with their decal. Some hugged the well-respected player who's in his third season as a starter after not breaking into the league until his mid-20s because of his military commitments.
"Ultimately those guys in the 4th infantry, granted, I don't know any of them, but however I conduct myself on Sunday, they are going to be able to see that (logo), and they are going to be able to relate," Moats said.
That's important to service members and veterans, Villanueva said, and not only because it's the NFL's "Salute to Service" month intended to honor veterans.
"I see the NFL try these attempts to honor the military," Villanueva said, "but as somebody who was in the military, I know exactly what means a lot to me. When I see a 'U.S. Army' (logo), I say, 'Yeah, cool.' But it doesn't really speak a lot to me.
"But you see, 'Oh, holy smokes, that's 'The 82nd,' or the '3rd I.D.' and Cameron Heyward is from Georgia, and so he's wearing the 3rd I.D, if the player knew the impact that he has on that specific unit, and he makes a play and you see the patch: 3rd I.D. those are huge. That means a lot more. It's almost like showing something you can truly identify with. The flag? Everybody is going to honor the flag, sure. We all love the flag. But the specific unit patch that you fought with? It means a lot to a lot of people."
Villanueva earlier this season found himself thrust in the middle of what has become a spirited national discussion about honoring active-duty military and veterans via standing for "The Star-Spangled Banner" while also respecting the rights of peaceful protest of players who have elected to kneel or sit during the pregame playing of the anthem.
While his natural default is to remain a private person, Villanueva understands that his unique status as a Bronze Star-decorated former Army captain now playing in the NFL makes his perspective and opinion on such subjects valued.
Handing out decals is one way to help bridge the gap between his teammates in the locker room and his veteran brethren who are living more conventional types of civilian life.
"It's something that hopefully means a lot to the players," Villanueva said of the division decals, "but it certainly is going to mean a lot to the veterans. And you'll see that on Sunday."
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