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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Former Utah football player Stevenson Sylvester, who is on injured reserve with the Buffalo Bills, and girlfriend Sandra McAlman hand out burritos to the homeless. He volunteers with the Burrito Project, where he and friends meet weekly to make burritos at Rico Brand and deliver them to the homeless, Monday, Oct. 20, 2014, in Salt Lake City.
To be honest, my mom. When I was young, she really instilled that in me. I’ve been in that place where I didn’t have much. There is something in giving back to people that’s more gratifying. That’s the true treasure to me. —- Matt Martinez, on where his drive to serve the community comes from.

SALT LAKE CITY — A shirtless man with matted, messy hair searched frantically for a pen that would write on the only shirt he owned.

As he skittered from stranger to stranger asking for a black marker, he couldn’t contain his exuberance — or his skepticism.

After all, it isn’t every day an NFL player walks up and hands you a free meal.

“Really? You play for the Bills?” he asked the grinning former Ute and injured Buffalo Bills linebacker Stevenson Sylvester.

“Well, I’m injured right now,” Sylvester explained softly, as he continued to hand burritos to the crowd of homeless people who’d gathered around the volunteers for the Salt Lake Burrito Project.

“This is unbelievable,” the man said, repeatedly putting his hands in his hair. Finally, a man offered him a felt-tip pen to write on the label of the long-sleeve shirt he’d shed in the warmth of the afternoon’s sunshine. “I wish we had a ball so we could play a play or something.”

Sylvester never stopped smiling as he signed his name on the label of the shirt. While he was signing the shirt, the man explained how a Buffalo Bills fan ended up living on the streets of Salt Lake City.

Sylvester listened politely but continued to do what he and his girlfriend, Sandra McAlman, do every Monday — hand out free burritos to those who might otherwise go hungry.

Sylvester has been handing out burritos for the past couple of months on Monday nights with the volunteers of the Salt Lake Burrito Project. The three-times-a-week effort is a joint venture between a group of volunteers and businessman Jorge Fierro, owner of Frida Bistro and Rico brand foods.

It was three years ago when Fierro was approached by a group of volunteers who wanted to start a local version of a national program (burritoproject.org).

They didn’t know it, but they couldn’t have chosen a business owner with a more acute understanding of homelessness and hunger than Fierro.

Growing up in northern Mexico, Fierro said he was always impressed with the charity work he witnessed in America.

“I was always fascinated with Americans. I always admired the philanthropic minds that Americans have,” Fierro said. “That’s the thing that grabbed me when I was growing up.”

When he started to struggle in law school, he decided to see what he might make of his life in America. He immigrated to the United States and worked first as a sheepherder in Wyoming. He eventually made his way to Utah, where he hoped to learn English and find a job.

He stayed for a week in the Rescue Mission and then a month in the men’s shelter.

“What I noticed was a very high percentage of homeless are vets from different wars,” he said. “I knew then that I would someday pay it forward.”

He realized something else when he was relying on the kindness of strangers in 1985.

“I was never hungry,” he said. “I always found someone to feed me, and I thought, ‘Why not do this?’ At that time, what I needed was someone to believe in me, and someone to say, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ So I decided I was going to do that.”

He said that while most people are aware there are homeless men, women and children in Utah, the reality of the problem is more difficult to comprehend.

“Not until you go out on the street and hand someone a burrito do you realize how severe the problem is,” Fierro said. “I think it’s fantastic that a lot of people come here and volunteer, that they come here with the spirit to help. And in the end, they’re the ones who learn.”

Sylvester said it was his former roommate at Utah, Matt Martinez, also a linebacker for the Utes from 2006-2011, who told him about the Burrito Project.

Martinez said it was an invitation from a Utah fan who helps organize the project that got him involved. He called Sylvester, and Sylvester called former teammate Robert Johnson, an all-conference safety at Utah from 2007-09 who played for the Tennessee Titans until last year.

All three men said they were influenced by their own experiences to seek opportunities like the Burrito Project.

“To be honest, my mom,” Martinez said of where his drive to serve the community comes from. “When I was young, she really instilled that in me. I’ve been in that place where I didn’t have much. There is something in giving back to people that’s more gratifying. That’s the true treasure to me.”

Johnson said getting involved was “a no brainer.”

“I grew up in poverty,” he said. “I grew up in South Central Los Angeles. … I have five siblings in my family, and my father was killed when I was about 4. My mom took care of all of us, so I know what it’s like to struggle.”

He knows burritos aren’t going to change anyone’s life, but they may keep hunger at bay while reminding people that others care about them.

“Having a mom who is working job to job just trying to put food on the table, I know that anything is better than nothing,” he said.

And both Johnson and Sylvester said they feel like life has been especially kind to them, even with the hardships they’ve endured.

“I was lucky enough to be in the right spot at the right time when coach (Kalani) Sitake came and recruited me," Johnson said. "He was coming to look at somebody else, but then they offered me a scholarship, and I was fortunate enough to come here and play. After that it was a domino effect, all of it fell into place.”

Sylvester echoed Johnson’s sentiments, from growing up in Las Vegas and experiencing poverty in his own life to finding a lifeline in the Utes' football program and eventually the NFL.

He is shy about the attention, pointing out all of the people who’ve delivered burritos three times a week for the past three years without the attention of the media or thanks of fans.

But he’s also grateful that sometimes being a great athlete can bring attention, and maybe support, to causes and organizations like the Salt Lake Burrito Project.

“I don’t ever want to bring the wrong attention,” Sylvester said. “I don’t want people to say, ‘Oh, he’s just doing that for football.’ I’m out here every week whether there is a camera or not. I’m really happy to do it.”

And he acknowledges athletes often have a platform that allows them to influence others.

“I feel all professional athletes are in a position to give back, however you give back, whether you go talk to elementary schools, help out the elderly, which a lot of guys like to do, especially in Pittsburgh, or pass out burritos, deliver a smile to the hungry, we’re all for it, and it’s definitely something I need to do more of.”

Drafted by Pittsburgh in the fifth round in 2010, Sylvester was just five weeks into a one-year deal with the Bills when he injured his knee. After the team placed him on injured reserve, he moved back to Utah to have surgery. He said his recovery couldn't be going any better, even though he's not expected to return to the field this season.

He's been cleared by doctors to ride a bike to deliver burritos. The jokes flew the first time he tried to find a helmet to fit his head, and his 6-foot-2, 235-pound physique made the donated cruiser look like a child’s dirt bike.

On this Monday, the group headed the wrong direction, and eventually was redirected to Pioneer Park. Some of the crowd was vocal about their displeasure over the cameras that followed Sylvester, but one woman made her way through the chaos to shake his hand and thank him for taking time to hand out food.

Another man spoke loudly from the middle of the street to thank all of the volunteers for their efforts.

The group had one bag of burritos left when they left the park and headed toward the shelter. A loud bang was followed by laughter, most of it coming from McAlman. It seems Sylvester’s linebacker frame was too much for his bike to bear, and he’d blown his back tire.

Through it all, he never stopped smiling.

The children move him most, and now that he thinks about it, there is only one thing that bothers him.

He pointed to a burrito thrown into the street. “I appreciate it when they just say they don’t want it,” he said.

Part of what bothers him is that he’s learned the need is greater than what they have to offer. Still, he’s grateful for Martinez’s call, Fierro’s generosity and the effort of the project’s countless volunteers.

“Why not (smile),” he said, as he held the empty bag in his massive hands. “I feel like everything has rolled my way in life. My family, friends, opportunity and people — everybody who’s come into my life has been positive. … Being back in Utah, I can’t do nothing but smile. It’s a beautiful area, the people are great and I get to do community service like this. I just love everything about where I’m at, what I’m doing and what I’m able to do in the future. Can’t do nothing but say thank you.”

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