Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2011 | 8 p.m.
Map of Valley High School
2839 S. Burnham, Las Vegas
- Valley High grad preparing for NFL career (4-16-2010)
- Valley High grad making his mark in Utah (7-23-2009)
- Sugar Bowl marks sweet success for Valley High grad (1-7-2009)
The voice mail on Stevenson Sylvester’s cell phone was jammed with messages and wouldn’t accept any more. The text messages were almost too numerous to count.
The Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker and Valley High School graduate was so overwhelmed with friends trying to contact him that he had to turn off his phone — and that was before the Steelers advanced to the Super Bowl on Feb. 6 in Dallas.
When the Steelers beat the New York Jets last Sunday in the AFC championship game, Sylvester had already fielded calls from family, friends and old acquaintances with the same message: Do you have any Super Bowl tickets?
It’s a good problem to have.
After all, only a select few players suit up for the Super Bowl, and even some of the league’s most notable stars spend their entire careers chasing a spot in the game with little success. Pittsburgh will play the Green Bay Packers this year.
“It still feels like I am dreaming,” Sylvester said this week. “Maybe it will hit me next week when we get to Dallas. I just don’t want anyone to pinch me and wake me up.”
A rookie linebacker who plays mostly on special teams, Sylvester’s journey to the NFL is a story of overcoming long odds, never giving up on dreams and taking advantage of the one opportunity he was lucky enough to receive.
When he left Valley in 2006, the University of Utah was the only college to offer him a scholarship — and only because his high school coach urged Utah assistants to scout him while they were in town playing UNLV.
Now, the 22-year-old will be playing in front of millions of viewers around the world. As for the 10 to 12 tickets each player receives, Sylvester’s will go to family members mostly in Las Vegas.
“It’s just so exciting to be part of this,” Sylvester said. “It’s everyone’s goal as a player. I know I am one of the fortunate ones.”
The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Sylvester, a fifth-round pick of the Steelers last April, blossomed during his time at Utah, becoming a two-time captain, and in the 2008 season leading his team to a 13-0 record and Sugar Bowl victory against Alabama.
His success was surprising to several observers — just not to Valley coach Marcus Sherman.
Sylvester was one of Southern Nevada’s top basketball players while at Valley, but Sherman saw something in him on the gridiron he knew would translate into success at the next level. Sherman called a coaching friend at Utah and the rest is history.
Despite often being lost on the field during the early part of his college career, nobody ever doubted Sylvester’s raw athleticism, aggressive play and explosiveness. And when he started adding bulk to his lanky frame, he became a force.
“I had to fight him that he wasn’t a basketball player,” Sherman said. “I’m not taking any credit for it. I just made one phone call. He did the rest. He’s such a great athlete, and with the way he hits, he can play anywhere.”
“The thing that has always made Stevie different is his confidence,” he said. “He’s not cocky. He just knows he should be there.”
Several late-round draft picks such as Sylvester would be cut from the team or sent to the practice squad to develop, but he earned a spot on the 53-man roster. He is on all four of Pittsburgh’s special-teams units and also played a handful of snaps in a reserve role at linebacker.
He had 14 tackles and one forced fumble this season, including four tackles against the Cleveland Browns in the final week of the regular season when he received significant playing time at linebacker.
“This place has just been crazy the last few weeks,” Sylvester said. “The city of Pittsburgh loves their Steelers. It’s amazing to be living this.”
Angela Levi, his mother, was in Pittsburgh for the AFC championship game. The moment mother and son shared following the victory is something she will cherish forever. All of the years of driving her children to practices, watching games and giving them advice would pay off in a trip to the Super Bowl.
“He said, ‘Mom, can you believe this? It’s the Super Bowl,’” said Levi, who along with Sylvester’s brother, girlfriend and a few others will be at the game. “There was so much excitement. The Steeler Nation was insanely loud. It was 8 degrees and I was panicking all week about the cold, but I was so excited, I didn’t feel anything until the end.”
Growing up in Ely, Sylvester’s passion for playing sports was second to none. It just took time for his body to catch up to his knowledge and love of competing.
“We were looking at his state ID from when he was a sophomore the other day and it (read), 5-foot-8, 139 pounds,” she said. “His work ethic was always great, and he always understood the game and loved being part of it. Then, when he started to grow, he just took off.”
He attended White Pine High in Ely as a freshman before the family moved to Las Vegas. His No. 10 football jersey is retired in the gym at Valley, hanging on the same wall as the school’s other stars — such as baseball legend Greg Maddux.
Talk with any of the staff at Valley, however, and they will tell you it’s not his success on the football field they are most proud of. Rather, it’s the fact he graduated from Utah that the teachers at his inner-city school remember.
Valley Principal Ron Montoya uses Sylvester as an example to current students about accomplishing their dreams. Sylvester regularly returns to campus, often spending long hours visiting with former teachers and coaches and always meeting with students who are well-versed on his story.
“We tell our children that they are the best, that they are smart and they will succeed,” Montoya said. “We tell them that every day and they buy into it. He’s one of those children who is living proof.”
Sherman plans to frame a picture of Sylvester playing in the Super Bowl in the weight room. Next to the photo there will be an empty frame with the message, “Who’s next?”
“He’s an inspiration for the whole school right now,” Sherman said. “The children all know who he is. We are all Steelers fans right now. He’s a big motivation for everyone. We’re excited to have him represent us.”
Sylvester hopes to be wearing something special for his next visit — a Super Bowl championship ring.
“I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for the people at Valley,” he said. “Without that opportunity (from Sherman), I wouldn’t be playing in the Super Bowl.”