Ravell Call, Deseret News
We’re has-beens. But we can still give back in our realm. We wanted to come together on a deeper level and help out the communities.—Matt Martinez
As a former Ute fcotball player, Matt Martinez knows the advantages being a college athlete offers.
He also knows that while some aspects of the experience are fleeting — fame and adoration, for instance — other parts of it are as real and lasting as familial ties, especially the loyalty and support of those he played alongside.
Which is why, when he looks for support with any project, the guys he played with are the first ones he asks. A Utah fan introduced him to the Burrito Project, a charity effort supported by Rico Brand that allows volunteers to roll burritos at Frida Bistro and then distribute them around downtown Salt Lake, and Martinez convinced some of his former teammates to join him, including Stevenson Sylvester, an all-MWC linebacker from 2006-2010 who was drafted by Pittsburgh.
Sylvester, in turn, asked Martinez, as well as a handful of other former Utes, to help him when he began “Shop with Sly” a few years ago. The group raises money and then takes children from different organizations shopping for Christmas presents.
Meanwhile, another former teammate, tight end Dallin Rogers (2007-2012) started FitCon, a highly successful festival-like event that includes exhibits, competitions and events, and which supports various charities in a myriad of ways.
“We’d all just been doing our own things,” Sylvester said. “Martinez kind of got the idea to collaborate.” The three men formed a non-profit called Athletes Stronger Together that aims to support local charity efforts.
They launch their effort in a series of events meant to make the holidays happier for those struggling with issues from homelessness to drug addiction.
The men said there is power in their unity, and it’s accentuated by the success they had at Utah. While they could leverage the connections they made for their own benefit, they’re choosing to use them to improve the community that supported them.
“We’re has-beens,” Martinez said. “But we can still give back in our realm. …We wanted to come together on a deeper level and help out the communities.”
Their effort begins Thursday with a Christmas Tree giveaway for 20 families from the Utah Foster Care Foundation, an effort they’re conducting in conjunction with the Air National Guard.
They’ve been collecting coats at Frida Bistro, 545 W. 700 S., and they will be sorting those Friday at 2 p.m. At 3 p.m., they’ll be rolling burritos and then handing them out about 4 p.m. There are still volunteer spots open, and coats will be accepted until they begin handing out burritos about 4 p.m.
On Saturday, they sponsor a fitness expo at South Town Expo Center in Sandy from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. All of the money from the $10 tickets will be donated to the Shop with Sly event, which this year will bring children whose parents are struggling with drug addiction a little Christmas cheer. The group that serves the children is called KOPPIR, Kids or Parents of People in Recovery, and Rogers has worked with them through FitCon in the past.
“All of the kids have parents who are in recovery,” Martinez said. “It’s a very inspiring group. Those kids go through a lot of trial and tribulation. They see their parents go through a lot of heartache and it really affects them. It’s really inspiring to give back to these kids.”
Sylvester’s taking two groups of children from KOPPIR shopping Tuesday, and each child will be paired with an athlete to choose some presents for Christmas.
Rogers said the three men grew up with families that emphasized giving and gratitude, but they also had that reinforced during their time at Utah through various charity projects.
They already have a project planned with Habitat for Humanity in January, and he hopes the men can leverage their connections as athletes to help the greater community.
“Our goal is every three of four months to host a different kidn of service project,” Rogers said. “A lot of charities struggle with funding. We want to help raise money for those charities and help them fund their projects by hosting events, collecting donations and using other resources we have to support their work.”
Martinez said they hope to involve athletes from other schools, especially BYU. In fact, they’d invited Cougar head coach Kalani Sitake, who was a coach at Utah when they played, but BYU is preparing for its bowl game.
“This isn’t a Utah thing, and it doesn’t have to be about the rivalry,” Martinez said. “Kalani always did stuff with us. We hope to come together on a deeper level and help out the communities. …It doesn’t matter what university. We just want to give back to the community that gave us so much while we were playing.”
For more infomation on participating in or donating to the efforts, as well as the Fitness Expo, go to athletestrong.org.