On Saturday March 11, the "unthinkable" happened. Utes and Cougars put aside their on-field differences to come together and help a widow put her life back together by completely refurbishing her house in a day.
It was all made possible because Athlete Strong - an organization founded by former Ute linebackers Stevenson Sylvester, Matt Martinez and former tight end Dallin Rogers - joined with another nonprofit organization Little Miracles and enlisted help from Kalani Sitake, their former coach at Utah and now current head coach at BYU.
Sylvester first became aware of the renovation project through a mutual friend, who introduced him to someone who works with Little Miracles. Little Miracles is an organization run by single moms that helps out other single moms by cleaning, organizing and doing small honey-do items around the house for each other. Candidates to receive help are all vetted through a nomination system.
This particular case was a little unique as the family they were preparing to aid was older- the children are all grown and the work to be done was much more labor intensive than usual. However, everyone felt it was the right thing to do for a woman who was battling Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome from losing her husband, a child and grandchild all within a short period of time.
“One of my friends, I was over for dinner one day and I was doing some work on my foundation and he was like, ‘I know a lady, Julie and she does a foundation where she can even help you out with your foundation’,” Sylvester said of his latest project. “Julie and I went out to dinner and she was like, ‘I have a good project on March 11. You guys should definitely come down and help out.’”
Tiani Shoemaker, one of the executive board members of Little Miracles says their foundation started as a way for moms and their kids to socialize and do something positive in their community and has slowly been growing due to the kindness of others. “It was just a way for us to go and bring our kids and do something in the community instead of going on a humanitarian trip,” she explained. “It’s just a way for us to get out in the community and just work together and help each other out. It was never intended to be the full-blown home makeover that it sometimes turns into. We never promise that or go into it saying that is what we are going to do. It was more to clean, fix things up but honestly this is just the goodness of people that want to do more.”
That goodness came at about 150-200 people strong, most of whom had no connection to the woman they were helping. Sylvester, Shoemaker and others even went so far as to prep the house the night before until about 3 A.M. so it would be ready for the bigger renovations it would receive the next day.
As for bringing the BYU football team on board, Sylvester said it was really easy reaching out to his former defensive coordinator for help. “You know, of course my college career with Kalani community service was a big deal with how we operated so I knew he’d instill that in those players too,” Sylvester said. “These guys are great to be around. Really great guys Kalani is recruiting down there and just putting in this work. I am really thankful for their help.”
Jasen Ah You, director of Football Operations at BYU, said when they got the call from Sly it was a no-brainer. They would help and he and Sitake immediately went to work making sure their guys knew in meetings about the opportunity they had to give back.
“It is very important,” Ah You said of giving back to the community and working together. “I know it’s one of coach Sitake’s things that he pushes that we always need to give back to the community. It’s big for us and big for coach Sitake too that we be involved in the community and that we give back. A lot of people pay a lot of money to come watch us play and support us and this is the easiest way we can give back is to do service.”
Senior linebacker Fred Warner was more than happy to put aside the rivalry for a day to assist a family who needed it with his teammates. “I think any time it comes down to helping somebody in need I think we just kind of forget about the whole rivalry thing between BYU and Utah and come together and try to help as much as we can,” he said. “Us as football players, we can do a lot in a small amount of time so just any way we can help.”
“I think it’s just part of our duty to give back,” Warner continued. “As football players we get so much love from fans and we are blessed with the opportunity to play football and have a free education that it’s just a little thing we can do to come out and help a family out like this.”
The main task the players were given was to clean up the back yard including digging out an old hot tub, filling in the hole it left and digging trenches for a new sprinkler system. Despite the intense nature of the task at hand freshly signed safety Chaz Ah You was all smiles and enjoyed the opportunity to get to know his teammates outside of football while helping a deserving family.
“It’s been really fun, it’s been a good bonding experience,” Ah You said. “I’m still trying to get to know a lot of the players so it’s been a good experience for me and a lot of fun. Guys have been laughing the whole time so it doesn’t even feel like work.”
Dan Platt, who owns Deseret Landscape and Property Maintenance, was in charge of supervising the players and giving them the game plan. He also happens to be the brother of the woman everyone was there to help. “They just asked me to come and supervise and put a plan together for the outside,” Platt said. “We’ve got a lot of help here and we’ve just kind of winged it but it’s getting done with so many volunteers. It’s crazy. I mean we’ve probably got five city blocks here of cars and a lot of hands make light work.”
Later in the day, Coach Sitake stopped by to see the progress being made and it was very clear he couldn’t help but beam from ear to ear watching his former Utah guys and current BYU guys working together to make someone’s life a little easier.
“Our players have been great,” Sitake said of the Cougars. “Since I’ve been here- it had nothing really to do with me. They are just always involved in the community and our players are excited to help out where ever they can and they understand the platform they are at. To have a group of young men who are willing to help and willing to serve- it’s an honor for me to be their coach.”
As for his former players, Sitake could not be more proud of how they have grown into outstanding men in the community long after he coached them at Utah. “I love that Sly and Martinez are doing this,” he said. “It’s a huge compliment to their families and they way they were raised and the fact that they appreciate what got them to where they are at that they are willing to help others. We all understand it takes more than just a few people. It takes a bunch of people that are committed to helping out others and they definitely recognize that they had help along the way and the fact that they can contribute and be a part of that as well is a huge plus to me. I love that they do that.”
Shoemaker agreed and could not have been more pleased with the example being set by the athletes who came out. “So, so awesome,” she said. “Not only because they are strong and can get a lot done fast but there are all of these kids here and I love that because they are looking up to these guys so much. What a better way to have these kids learn, because again it all just goes back to families and to see these awesome collegiate and former professional athletes out here- oh, it’s amazing. It’s huge.”
For Sylvester, it was exciting and legitimizing seeing his foundation grow from just former and current Utah athletes to athletes at other schools as well. “It’s called Athlete Strong and it doesn’t matter what university or what walk of life you come from,” he said. “High school, college, even professionals and alumni- we can get together as athletes and then I love using alumni because we used to do this so much in college where you kind of don’t get to do it anymore. These guys love to do it- it’s always a ‘yes’ and if they can’t do it this time they always make sure they are around for the next one. Having BYU and this connection with them and knowing they would be willing to help us out with each event is definitely great for us.”