Steelers’ Heyward: Team will remain together if it opts to protest

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Cam Heyward is well-versed in the sometimes messy optics associated with taking a stand against social injustice.

The Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end and his teammates met it head on in 2017, when a miscommunication with left tackle and Army veteran Alejandro Villanueva left Villanueva on the field in Chicago for the national anthem while the rest of the Steelers remained in the tunnel. The image — Villanueva with his hand over his heart, the other 52 players on the roster hidden in darkness — became a flashpoint in the debate on what is and what isn’t the proper way to protest.

Nearly three years later, it still stings.

“Thing that ticks me off about that, what we were trying to do was remain out of the spotlight and it got turned upside down,” Heyward said Thursday. “To know that we were looked at as leaving one of our brothers out and leaving Al out to dry (hurts).”

Heyward isn’t concerned about the Steelers making that mistake again as they prepare for a season unlike any other. The wave of high-profile nationwide protests in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police office has professional athletes once again trying to piece together how to use their platform to bring about change.

While Heyward, a nine-year veteran and longtime defensive captain, stressed everyone has a voice in the locker room, he expects any public display by the team on the field to be one of togetherness.

“I think we want to stay united in what we do and what we want to accomplish,” Heyward said. “Coach (Mike Tomlin) has always told me if we win the Super Bowl, that’s not enough in the city of Pittsburgh. We want to leave lasting change among the community as well. For us, we’re going to have those opportunities to branch out and be individuals and affect our community (off the field).”

Heyward is confident the climate in 2020 is more open to honest dialogue compared to 2017, when Kaepernick’s taking a knee to call attention to police brutality turned into a referendum on whether it’s appropriate to make that kind of stand during “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

“It was harder (in 2017) because I felt like … no one really paid to the issues Colin was talking about at the time and they were mostly concerned with what he was doing rather than his message,” Heyward said. “I think this time around you see the evidence and you see what he was talking about. It’s not like he was blowing up smoke. These are real issues that effect our communities and this is a chance for a lot of guys to speak up. We all have backgrounds and we’ve all seen these tragedies happen. They’ve got to stop.”

The 31-year-old Heyward, a married father of three whose wife is white, added “these issues hit home way more because my family is going to have to deal with it for the rest of their lives.”

Heyward called for more resources for law enforcement officers and having a national database that can track complaints against officers.

“If you have a prior complaint, that needs to be filed,” Heyward said. “There’s no reason you should be right back on the street. There should be no reason why the color of my skin or the color of my child’s skin or the color of my friend’s skin should threaten you.”


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)