1 of 20
Adam Fondren, Deseret News
Stevenson Sylvester helps homeless people find some warm clothing during Project Burrito at Pioneer Park in Salt Lake City on Monday, Dec. 18, 2017.

SALT LAKE CITY – Rich Sneddon sorts through the pile of clothes with former Utah and Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Stevenson Sylvester, hoping to find warm pants for a friend who stands silently a few feet away wearing shorts and a blanket.

He doesn’t equivocate when asked whether the efforts of the group offering warm clothes, hot food and bottles of waters matters to the dozens of homeless people lined near the tables.

“It keeps us alive,” he said.

Sylvester, Dallin Rogers, and Matt Martinez were once teammates at the University of Utah. Years removed from their playing days, they were all involved in their own charity endeavors when they decided to reunite to form a nonprofit, Athlete Strong, that would allow them to focus their efforts on some long-term service projects in Utah.

This week they have three events planned, beginning with Monday’s meal and clothing give away. They solicited volunteers to help them, and the group included some of their former teammates like quarterback Adam Shulz, as well as fans like Jared Carter and his 5-year old daughter Ellen.

Wearing a University of Utah Santa hat, Ellen contemplated which player or coach was her favorite, while her dad explained why they thought what the athletes had organized was worth supporting.

“It’s great,” he said. “I like it that when they went to school at the U., they received help from the community, and they’re giving back to the community.”

Other events inlcuded gathering about a dozen athletes to shop Tuesday with “Angel Hands,” a group that supports children with extremely rare diseases. On Thursday, Athlete Strong will deliver toys to Shriners Hospitals for Children as part of its Winterfest celebration.

Martinez said the plan to pool their resources came together over breakfast last year.

“A year ago we got together and said ‘Let’s do some charity work and see what we can do to empower each other,’” Martinez said. “And it’s been great.”

The men have a unique bond that transcends their playing days.

“I think a lot of it’s the brotherhood that connects with who we are, and we never lose that once we stop playing,” he said. “Connecting with the community is another way to give back and get together.”

Rogers said the men each had specific interests or causes they wanted to help, and that’s why they decided to form a new group rather than just participating in an existing charity.

“We are a lot more powerful together than we are doing our own separate entities and separate visions and missions,” Martinez said. “I think keeping us together as one keeps us going.”

Courtney Farrior, 28, of Salt Lake City, is both a Utah and Steelers fan, and he came out Monday with his wife and brother-in-law to help make and handout the meal and clothing.

“I enjoyed it,” he said. “I just wanted to get more involved in charity and volunteering.”

Rob Haslam, 46, moved to Salt Lake City last February and met Martinez. He is a former athlete and said he jumped at the chance to get involved in Athlete Strong.

“I’m going to help them the whole week,” he said. “I like it because athletes are admired by people. When people see somebody that’s admired and they’re actually giving back, rather than being the person who is getting all the accolades, it’s nice because it shows how humble they really are.”

2 comments on this story

Bonnie Averett pulled a white hoodie over her head and took another one in her arms before excitedly collecting a burrito and some water.

She repeatedly thanked volunteers and laughed loudly as she discussed the giveaway with some friends.

“I got a burrito and some water and a happy smile,” she said, laughing again. “I was scared to come down here after 116 months of being homeless.”

She registered to stay at the Road Home shelter earlier Monday and said she’s grateful for every kindness.

“I think it matters,” she said. “It makes a huge difference, a huge impact.”