The NFL has permitted players this season to adorn the reverse of their helmets with individual messages supporting causes or honoring lives lost in the quest for racial equality and social justice. The Pittsburgh Steelers as a team chose to support a simple, unified message, in donning the name of Antwon Rose Jr., a 17-year-old who lost his life to police violence in Pittsburgh.
That name was affixed to the reverse of every helmet. Only one was taped over to feature another name—the name of Alwyn Cashe, a name that many are now learning for the first time after seeing it on the back of the helmet of the Steelers’ left tackle, Alejandro Villanueva.
Born in 1970, Cashe, an African American, enlisted into the Army in 1988 and saw active duty multiple times, first in the Gulf War, and then during the invasion and occupation of Iraq, beginning in 2003. He sacrificed his life to save others in late 2005 when his vehicle was struck by an IED.
Despite receiving only minor injuries himself, he would ultimately lose his life several weeks later after suffering burns over 72 percent of his body. Cashe repeatedly returned to the burning vehicle in order to retrieve injured soldiers from the flames, his own clothes catching fire. He delayed medical attention for himself until all others were evacuated.
He was awarded the Silver Star for his actions that day, but nearly 15 years later, there is a campaign to upgrade his award to that of the Medal of Honor, the highest honor in the armed services. A few weeks ago, Mark Esper, the Secretary of Defense, noted that the heroic actions Cashe displayed that day merit the honor.
Villanueva wanted to honor his life and bring attention to his name as the movement to award him the Medal of Honor builds. Monday Night Football was not a bad opportunity to do that. Still, many questioned why he chose to wear a different name when the team had seemingly made such a big deal about displaying a united message. Mike Tomlin addressed this earlier today.
“He did discuss that with me and it’s in line with everything that we said about participating in elements of social justice this offseason”, he told reporters when asked if he was aware of what Villanueva intended to do—much like when he alone was out on the field for the national anthem back in 2017.
“As an organization, and myself as the head coach of the 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”, Tomlin added. “And so that has been a blanket approach that we’ve had. And so I think it needs no further explanation in terms of our support for Al Villanueva or anyone else in terms of what they do or doesn’t do in regards to social justice, as long as they adhere to the outline that I just outlined for you”.
It is unknown whether or not Vilanueva will continue to wear Cashe’s name on his helmet throughout the season, or if this was simply a message that he wanted to send when the most eyes would be on the team. The Steelers have previously let it be known that the name of Antwon Rose Jr. would be featured on their helmets for the entire season.