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Steelers' Villanueva says 'very personal' helmet decision was exclusively about Alwyn Cashe, not Antwon Rose

By CHRIS ADAMSKI | The Tribune-Review | Published: September 28, 2020

GREENSBURG, Pa. (Tribune News Service) — Two weeks after being the lone Pittsburgh Steelers player to have an alternate name on the back of his helmet, offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva on Monday explained why he chose to honor Alwyn Cashe and not Antwon Rose Jr.

“I felt that my decision to honor Sergeant First Class Alwyn Cashe was something that was very personal to me,” Villanueva said during a video conference call, “due to the fact that in the veteran community there is a strong push to get him a Medal of Honor, which is something that the community believes that he deserves.”

Villanueva said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin gave him permission to honor Cashe. For the Sept. 14 opener, all of the other Steelers players’ helmets had the name of Rose, a Black teen who in 2018 died after being shot from behind three times by East Pittsburgh police officer Michael Rosfeld. Rose was fleeing a vehicle that had been pulled over because it had been involved in a drive-by shooting minutes earlier in North Braddock.

Cashe died in 2005 at age 35 while on duty in Iraq from injuries incurred while attempting to save fellow soldiers from a burning vehicle that had been subjected to an explosive device.

Cashe was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for valor, but a movement among politicians and military groups is pushing to recognize Cashe with the Medal of Honor. An act of Congress, though, is necessary to waive an expired statute of limitations.

“I think that the timing (of the helmet recognition) was perfect due to the fact that it gave the lawmakers a little bit of momentum going forward,” said Villanueva, an Army Ranger veteran who was awarded the Bronze Star for valor in service in Afghanistan. “The family has been waiting for 15 years to hear something from his chain of command and from Congress regarding the exception.”

The choice of Villanueva to recognize Cashe, who was Black, was controversial because the Steelers had announced that the entire team was going to be wearing helmets adorned with the name of Rose for the entire season. The NFL in 2020 is allowing individual players to wear the names of victims of police brutality or systemic racism on their helmets. Tomlin has for years emphasized that any cultural statements or protests made by Steelers players would be done so as a full, unified unit.

The mother of Rose, Michelle Kenney, criticized Villanueva in a since-deleted Facebook post the day after the season opener.

The following day, veteran Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey revealed he, too, was going to honor a different individual than Rose on his helmet. Pouncey, a longtime supporter of law enforcement causes, put the name Eric Kelly on his helmet. Kelly was one of three Pittsburgh Police officers slain in the April 2009 shooting in Stanton Heights.

Starting in Week 2, other players left their helmets blank, some affixed other names and some placed messages such as “It Takes All of Us” or “End Racism.”

In announcing he was no longer going to adorn Rose’s name, Pouncey cited initially being “unaware of the whole story” surrounding the details of Rose’s death. Rosfeld, who is white, was acquitted of homicide charges after less than four hours of deliberation by a jury that included three Black individuals, including its foreman.

Another passenger with Rose in the gold Chevy Cruze pulled over, Zaijuan Hester, later pleaded guilty to being the shooter in the drive-by. Surveillance video from that shooting showed Hester firing shots from the back seat of the vehicle.

Asked specifically on Monday if the circumstances of the Rose shooting influenced his helmet, Villanueva said: “The decision had to do exclusively with SFC. Alwyn Cashe and his pursuit of the Medal of Honor. That’s something that he deserves, and hopefully he will get it soon.”

cadamski@triblive.com or via Twitter

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