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Associated Press
Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Stevenson Sylvester celebrates with fans after a 41-9 win over the Cleveland Browns in an NFL football game Sunday, Jan. 2, 2011, in Cleveland.

Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Stevenson Sylvester is a goal-setter.

The former Utah Utes linebacker and Steelers' fifth-round pick in the 2010 NFL draft thinks big when he sets them. Hardly recruited as a football player out of high school, he's worked hard to accomplish lofty goals in college and in the pros.

His goal during his rookie season — once he made the Steelers' roster and played in every game this season — was to make it to the Super Bowl. He'll cross that goal off his list when the Steelers play the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV in Dallas on Sunday night.

"It feels incredible," Sylvester said in a phone interview last week. "Anybody can tell you when you achieve a goal it's great. I set so many goals to attain in college — get a degree, have fun, start on defense, go undefeated. And then I got drafted by the Steelers, and I get to play in the Super Bowl.

"I actually get to play in the Super Bowl," Sylvester said again, almost disbelieving. "It's dreams being accomplished, goals being accomplished. I'm so excited and happy. God has blessed me so well."

As a fifth-round pick, there were no guarantees that Sylvester was going to make the Steelers' roster this season. He earned a spot on the team with a solid preseason, and has contributed on special teams throughout the year. He recorded 14 tackles and forced a fumble.

Playing among one of the best linebacker units in the NFL in Pittsburgh, Sylvester knows he has to pay his dues and wait for his chance to play more on defense. But he has shown he can contribute on the pro level. In the game in which he played the most on defense this season, he had four tackles in a 41-9 win over Cleveland in Pittsburgh's regular-season finale.

"The season has been great," Sylvester said. "Coming in as a rookie, it's hard to get playing time let alone make the 53-man roster. It's been good. I've been blessed to be a part of an incredible football team. I couldn't even expect anything better. I set goals high, and I'm trying to reach them."

Sylvester does that in all aspects of his life — not just football.

"I'm proud of everything that Sly has accomplished," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "He's a very focused kid. He got his degree here in 3½ years. That's not easy to do with the demands placed on a Division I athlete. That's really how he handles all his business. He's a go-getter. When he wants something, he goes after it."

That's something known to anyone who spends extended time around Sylvester.

"He's passionate about everything he does," said Sylvester's agent, Michael Hoffman, who represents other players with local ties in the NFL such as Green Bay's Brady Poppinga, Tennessee's Robert Johnson and St. Louis' Bryan Kehl. "He's very goal-oriented. He's someone that works extremely hard. It's easy to understand why he's successful because of all he puts into it. He's someone who's going to continue to rise, and where it's going to end who knows."

Sylvester didn't grow up thinking he'd play in the NFL one day. He was a highly regarded basketball player in high school in southern Nevada, and figured to go that route in college. But he was convinced to play football at Utah, which had no competition for his services in terms of scholarship offers.

Whittingham said Sylvester's raw athleticism is what caught his eye.

"You just had to watch him play basketball one time with the way he moved, the explosiveness with which he played, his tenacity," Whittingham said. "He had a way about him."

Sylvester says playing for the Steelers is comparable to being a Ute. He paid his dues in his first couple of seasons at Utah, contributing on special teams and on defense when called upon. Winning is another similarity.

"It's like being at Utah — going from one winning program to another winning program," Sylvester said. "Last year the Steelers didn't go to the playoffs. They went 9-7. A lot of people will take that, but that's a down season for the Steelers. That's an unacceptable season. It's just like at Utah. We don't like to lose. When we lose, it's a horrible feeling."

Whittingham, who hopes to attend the Super Bowl, is amazed at how much Sylvester has developed since he was a high school basketball star, and he credits the linebacker's work ethic for it.

"He developed here in all areas — physically, just everything," Whittingham said. "He came here a boy and left here a man."

On Sunday, he'll be a man playing a kid's game on the grandest stage of American sports.

Super Bowl XLV

Steelers vs. Packers

Sunday, 4:29 p.m.

Cowboys Stadium

Arlington, Texas


Radio: AM-1320

e-mail: aaragon@desnews.com