Villanueva Stands Alone
Along that plunging lake in Eastern Illinois, whose wellspring calls home Canada and whose furthest reaches tickle the American north, a city lies nestled on its beach. Known affectionately by locals as Chicago, by unacclimated visitors as Siberia (or Antarctica, or Patagonia, or some cruel and intemperate combination of the three), the days between the late autumn and the early winter in that formidable city can downright paralyze you. With inhospitable temperatures and uncongenial winds, the city just about beats you down as you crumble beneath the weight of an insufferable freeze. Yet there’s one thing that vivifies this forever frost-bitten town. That eternal light, that incandescent warmth that sustains and nourishes every thick-blooded Chicagoan’s heart is, of course, the Bears.
Soldier Field is the house within which these aptly-named brutes and behemoths play. Christened in 1925, Soldier Field has been the last bastion of life in a city whose winter can stop the heart and suck the marrow dry. Less a stadium than a stage, it’s the place upon which Gale Sayers—legendarily fleet of foot and taciturn—leaped and pranced. Succeeding him some years later was the inimitable Walter Payton, who for far less time but with much more panache, did very much the same. It’s the field where William Perry, whose nickname was Chicago in its quintessence, amended all conceptions of just how a big man is supposed to move. And, under the immortal gaze of Ditka and Halas (of whose initials the latter now accouters every player’s jersey on the sleeve), these men and these Bears became an archetype for American sport.
As noted, the field was given its name in 1925—a date resigned to the annals of sporting antiquity so far as we’re concerned. Thus, the stadium was christened, “Soldier Field”, but its earlier, baptismal name was something far more banal. Before it was known then as now as Soldier Field, it was called the “Municipal Grant Park Stadium”. A name more suitable to house a men’s softball team than an NFL squad, it needed to change. It was an uninspiring and, more importantly, an unintimidating name to be sure, but I can’t help thinking there was something appealingly frank and quaint about it. I like how humble and forthcoming the name is. It wasn’t too much for its founders to acknowledge the toiling Chicagoans upon whose taxes and patronage their future prospects and their stadium relied.
But re-named the field was, and it forevermore gave to the Bears a place to call home. The new name, “Soldier Field” was chosen not on a whim, nor at the insistence of some corporate sponsor in mind, but out of a remarkable combination of patriotism and pith. Two qualities, one might add, uncommon in American sports today, where stadiums are named after jeans (Levi’s), razors (Gillette), and hucksters (Enron). It was named to commemorate the nation’s returning WWI veterans, amongst whom a few NFL players could count themselves. These still young G.I.’s returned stateside from Wilson’s war and from the final scenes of the most calamitous, sanguinary international row that the world had yet seen.
Indeed, that War to End all Wars culminated seven years prior to the naming of Soldier Field with the Treaty of Versailles, but the wounds to which American military families tended were still fresh. Though surely football couldn’t make them forget the carnage bespattering the trenches at places like Ypres, Verdun, or the Somme, it could help—as Warren G. Harding promised—to return this country to normalcy. Football was the prescription and it was to do the trick.
All-American and heart-warming though it is, I paint this picture not to exalt the Bears and their storied past. My intention rather is to contextualize one part of our current events, as they pertain to sports, in the shadow and the story of Soldier Field. Of course, the current event is that conflagration enflamed days ago by President Trump. At a campaign-style rally in Alabama, he took the opportunity to lash out against the NFL and its players for kneeling during the playing of the national anthem. In so doing, along that many-sided instrument that is the American soul, he struck a chord. Like him, a plurality, if not a majority of Americans find kneeling during the singing of the anthem distasteful. Some send their ire even further, thinking this irreverent genuflection is nothing better than a wholly odious and grotesque middle-finger to the flag.
As Trump made his opinions known, the NFL players responded in turn.
The Dallas Cowboys, anchored by their aging though omnipresent owner Jerry Jones, kneeled in Arizona before collectively standing for the anthem. The Oakland Raiders, before a primetime audience in Washington D.C., no less, kneeled through the song’s entirety. Playing an early-morning game in London, players from the Jacksonville Jaguars and Baltimore Ravens took to kneeling during “The Star-Spangled Banner”, only to stand afterward for the playing of “God Save the Queen”. No doubt Francis Scott Key, were he alive to see the day, would be horrified by such a scene. He might awaken to think that Fort McHenry had actually fallen and that the War of 1812 was by the British won.
And then there was Soldier Field. There, on its hallowed ground we glimpsed perhaps no image more ineffaceable than that of a lone player standing at the fringe of the turf while the national anthem played. This lone, and at first glance, seemingly dissident player was Alejandro Villanueva, a twenty-nine-year-old towering left tackle of the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers. The rest of the Steelers team, at Coach Mike Tomlin’s behest, stayed in the locker room whilst the anthem played. Tomlin preferred to have his team, save Villanueva, abstain from taking the field altogether. That way, he reasoned, the players wouldn’t be made to feel compelled to take a polarizing stance one way or the other as the eyes of the nation watched. It was a broad-minded attempt by Tomlin to be apolitical and to obviate the issue at foot.
But there Villanueva stood, and resolutely so. However, the thing to know about this imposing man is this: Villanueva was a patriot long before his career as a professional athlete began. The son of a career military man, Villanueva was deeply inspired by his father’s mettle and his sacrifice. Studying, as do many children of military parents, abroad in Germany and Spain, Villanueva went on to West Point University, from which he graduated in 2010. Diploma in hand, he went on to fulfill his commitment to this nation by serving three tours in Afghanistan between 2010 and 2013. Completing that which was demanded of him, Villanueva was then honorably discharged and awarded the Bronze Star.
He returned to civilian life and picked up exactly where he’d left off—on the line of scrimmage of the football field. During a regional showcase for those among us who might best be described as unrecognized talent, Villanueva was spotted by a local scout. This, mind you, was not only four years after he’d played his last down, but four years of having been station in the arid and inhospitable confines of the Middle East. But heat and pressure make diamonds, and he was one found in the rough. The Philadelphia Eagles took note of his potential, salivated over his height, and awarded him a spot on their roster.
Yet all of this laudable back-story was forgotten because during the national anthem at Soldier Field, without his teammates by his side, he decided to stand. He quickly became the center of attention and the source of division—neither of which he intended to be. Pundits jumped on his pertinacity and went so far as to assail his character. Most notably Shannon Sharpe, a former player in the league, a Chicagoan, and a current analyst on television said that Villanueva should have followed the team’s “protocol” by staying in the locker room. He spoke of an NFL team’s “military mentality” and how Villanueva strayed from the “all for one, one for all” ideal.
If one commentator’s reproach of Villanueva’s wasn’t disheartening enough, Villanueva’s statement following the controversy made up for whatever lacked. During a press conference Monday morning, which is a time and platform generally reserved for the previous day’s skill-position stars to talk about their performances the previous day, Villanueva addressed the issue at-length. He contritely said, “I see that picture of me standing by myself and I’m embarrassed to a degree, because unintentionally I left my teammates behind…every time I see that picture of me, I feel embarrassed”. He continued to say that he didn’t intend to be seen as the sole contrarian of the team “stepping forward” and away from the rest. He simply thought that by standing—in the tunnel and, as he hoped, inconspicuously, no less—he could find “some middle ground where nobody would see me”.
The problem is, we’ve lost all conceptions of what this middle ground might look like. It simply doesn’t exist. Not even for a veteran, a patriot, a gentleman, and a hero standing in honor of his flag at Soldier Field.