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Army football coach proud of former player in middle of anthem debate

Pittsburgh Steelers offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva (78) is the sole member of the team to stand in the open for the national anthem while his teammates remained in the tunnel before a game against the Chicago Bears on Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017, at Soldier Field in Chicago, Ill.

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By SAL INTERDONATO | The Times Herald-Record | Published: September 27, 2017

WEST POINT, N.Y. (Tribune News Service) — Every week leading up to a football game, the West Point Corps of Cadets choose an individual who best represents the academy for an important honor -- leading the Black Knights onto the field carrying the American flag.

"It's who we play for at the United States Military Academy," head coach Jeff Monken said Tuesday. "We play for the United States."

For Monken, the playing of the national anthem before games is another opportunity to show thanks for the freedoms that he and his family enjoy.

"It used to drive me crazy growing up to see people in the stands buying popcorn or talking to their friend or laughing and joking and not acknowledging the national anthem was being played," Monken said. "I feel that strongly about our nation. We should honor our nation."

As the protests by NFL players continued during the national anthem this weekend, one of West Point's own, Alejandro Villanueva, Class of 2010, found himself in the middle of the debate.

The Steelers had voted as a team against taking the field for the national anthem Sunday in Chicago. Villanueva, Pittsburgh's tackle and a former Army Ranger who served three tours in Afghanistan, asked the team's leadership if he could stand with the captains near the front of the tunnel when the anthem was sung. As circumstances would have it, a photo of Villanueva was taken standing by himself with his hand on his heart.

Villanueva apologized on Monday for what could have been perceived as going against his teammates' wishes.

"He's one of the most humbled professionals that I've ever worked with," said Steve Anderson, Villanueva's former Army teammate and fellow football captain in 2009. "He's a guy that is the ultimate team player. He's a guy that doesn't want any praise. He doesn't want to draw any attention to himself. This whole thing has blown out of proportion really fast for him."

When Monken was asked about the attention Villanueva has received, the coach said, "We are proud of Ali in everything he does. He's a great representative of this university, this football program, the United States Army."

West Point cadets, and all members of the Armed Forces, are required to stand for the national anthem whether they are in uniform or civilian clothes, Monken said.

At Army home football games, television dictates the time the anthem will be played, and it is generally 15-20 minutes before kickoff. Both teams remain in the locker room during the playing.

Monken said he isn't taken back by the debate. He said, "It's good that attention is being paid to the national anthem."

"I have my own opinions about what should be done during the national anthem," Monken said. "But, that's not my right to tell somebody else. This is America. We are the land of the free and home of the brave. We have the freedom to do whatever we want, and I think, in a lot of ways, it takes courage to stand up for what you believe in, though it may not be what everybody feels is right."

Army is not planning anything different this Saturday when it hosts UTEP. The national anthem will be played, and the Black Knights will be led onto the field by a chosen cadet, grasping the American flag.

"Everybody that comes to school here takes an oath to defend those freedoms and to stand for that flag," Monken said.

sinterdonato@th-record.com

(c) 2017 The Times Herald-Record. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Army football coach Jeff Monken, on the sidelines in 2016.
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