Early play-of-the-year candidate livens up NFL’s controversial day

Sunday afternoon at Soldier Field started with possibly the most significant of the protests around the league in the aftermath of President Trump’s call for NFL owners to “fire or suspend” players who refuse to stand for the national anthem, and for fans to boycott games “until players stop disrespecting our Flag & country.” It ended on Jordan Howard’s touchdown run in overtime, which gave the Bears a 23-17 victory. And in between, there was a sensationally stupid play that brought back memories of Leon Lett’s blunder in Super Bowl XXVII.

As the anthem was being sung, the Bears (including coach John Fox) locked arms on their sideline and the Steelers, or nearly all of them, were in the locker room.

“My contention was we would not allow politics to divide us. We’re football players, we’re a football team,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “I asked those guys to discuss it and … we have 100 percent participation or we do nothing. They discussed it for an appropriate length of time. They couldn’t come to an understanding, so they chose to remove themselves from it. They were not going to be disrespectful to the anthem, so they chose not to participate, but at the same time many of them were not going to accept the words of the president.”

So offensive lineman Alejandro Villanueva stood by himself outside the Steelers’ tunnel, helmet off with his right hand over his heart.

Villanueva is a veteran, an Army Ranger and captain who served three tours in Afghanistan and has a bronze star for valor. It’s a heated, complex issue, and in 2016, Villanueva said he agreed with Colin Kaepernick’s message about police brutality against African-Americans, but not his form of protest.

No matter one’s political bent, it’s hard to believe anyone would have a problem with this American hero saluting the flag and anthem at “Soldier Field.” And it’s an encouraging sign that on a day when players, owners and ESPN announcers joined forces to bash the president in polite and impolite terms (the Bucs’ DeSean Jackson called Trump a “joke” and a “clown”), that seemingly no one took issue with Villanueva.

“We support our guy Al,” Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward said. “He feels he had to do it. This guy served our country and we thank him for it.”

If there was anything that could steal the spotlight from what went on before the game, it’s what happened just before halftime.

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