On Monday, the top-selling jersey on the NFL’s official online store was probably a surprise to most people who saw it.
It wasn’t Tom Brady. It wasn’t Aaron Rodgers.
It was Pittsburgh Steelers tackle Alejandro Villanueva.
Villanueva, wearing his white No. 78 jersey, was photographed standing alone just outside the tunnel before the Steelers’ game with the Chicago Bears Sunday, hand over his heart, during the national anthem. Villanueva served three tours of duty in Afghanistan.
His teammates -- in response to comments from President Donald Trump -- decided to not be on the field during the national anthem Sunday. Throughout the NFL Sunday, players took knees or locked arms, among other signs, in a show of unity after Trump said he wanted NFL owners to fire players who don’t stand for the national anthem. Published estimates said more than 150 players staged some form of on-field demonstration.
The Steelers stayed inside, as did players from the Seahawks and Titans before those two teams played in Nashville Sunday. Villanueva addressed what happened in a media conference Monday. He said opponents, even on rival teams, have gone out of their way to thank him for his service. He said he didn’t take offense to players taking a knee.
“Nobody thinks that when you’re taking a knee you’re offending the flag,” Villanueva said. “...We’re essentially talking about two completely different things. The problem is it’s interpreted as disrespectful to the flag, so at the end of the day, people have to live with those consequences.”
In Charlotte, Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis was among the players who tried to make a statement Sunday. Davis clasped his hands together in prayer during the anthem, later writing on Instagram that “I am a firm believer that prayer changes things & as a country, we must stick together. Tough day in many ways but trust and believe, we will bounce back & continue to Keep Pounding!”
In Chicago, with many of the Steelers in the locker room, Villanueva decided to come out to the tunnel.
“We are not politicians, we're coaches and professional athletes,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “If those of us or individuals choose to participate in politics in some way, I'm going to be supportive of that, but when we come out of locker rooms we come out to play football games. To be quite honest with you, I didn't appreciate our football team being dragged into politics this weekend.”
By Monday, the LA Times confirmed with the company that runs the NFL Team Shop that Villanueva’s jersey and T-shirt replica were the top sellers and had been for more than 24 hours. Checking the site at 4 p.m. Monday afternoon, No. 78 was still at No. 1.