The Pittsburgh Steelers chose to honor a police shooting victim, offensive lineman Alejandro Villanueva covered his name with that of a black army sergeant who died saving six soldiers.
The Steelers announced on Monday that players had agreed to honor Antwon Rose Jr., a black teenager killed by police violence, by wearing his name on the back of their helmets. When they took the field against the New York Giants, Army veteran Alejandro had covered Rose’s name and hand wrote Alwyn Cashe over it.
Cashe was a career soldier who enlisted in the US Army straight out of high school in 1988. He served multiple tours in the Gulf and Iraq wars and achieved the rank of Sergeant first class.
On a mission during a 2005 deployment to Iraq, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle Cashe was traveling in hit an IED and burst into flames. His uniform was doused in fuel as he managed to escape, but Cashe went back into the burning vehicle to rescue injured soldiers, while in flames himself.
He saved six soldiers and denied medical attention until they were all evacuated. He died weeks later of burn injuries that covered 72% of his body.
He was awarded the Silver Star for his actions, but supporters continue to push for an upgrade to the Medal of Honor. On Wednesday, new legislation was introduced in the U.S. House to allow the President to award Cashe the honor, he is currently ineligible as more than five years have passed since his heroic actions.
Alejandro is a former Army Ranger who served three tours in Afghanistan and was awarded the Bronze Star prior to signing with the NFL in 2014. This is not the first time he has challenged the team’s social stance. When coach Mike Tomlin told players to remain in the locker room during the National Anthem in 2017, Alejandro stepped outside and saluted.
Tomlin said his offensive lineman discussed the change with him beforehand. “As an organization and myself as a head coach of an organization, we are 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.”
Alejandro’s teammates were surprised, quarterback Ben Roethlisbeger said he didn’t know about the name change. “That’s his choice. That’s the amazing thing about the country we live in. Unfortunately, it is what it is.”
Defensive Tackle Cameron Heyward said, “In this country, we’re given the freedom to do and support those that mean a lot to us.”
Rose’s mother, Michelle Kenney, was not happy with the change and spoke out against Alejandro’s decision on Facebook. “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.”
Antwon Rose Jr. was shot in the back by a Pittsburg police officer in 2018, when he ran from a vehicle after being pulled over. The officer was charged with murder, but found not guilty in March 2019.