"I give credit to my mother for helping me along that way," Sylvester said during a recent phone interview. "I never really got in trouble out here in Las Vegas."
Sylvester's mother, Angela Levi, raised her two sons and six cousins there. Her best decision might've been moving the family a few miles north for six years. It was needed, Sly said, "during those hostile years when kids can really get wild."
The family moved back to Vegas when Sly was 14 and he began playing football at Valley High. His mom had played basketball at Southern Utah and that's how the family spent much of its time. But Sly heard the siren's call for football during his freshman season and Valley eventually became a power.
The school lost two games during Sly's junior season and then played for (and lost) the conference championship his senior year. He was a first-team all-state linebacker and tight end, as well as the team captain and MVP.
Utah was the first Division 1-A school to show interest, so Sly chose the Utes, even after schools such as UNLV began showing interest. He played in 10 games game as a freshman and became a full-time starter at "rover" linebacker as a sophomore. His breakout game was his homecoming at UNLV. He made 14 tackles, but Utah lost.
"I gave my all in that game and to lose was a terrible feeling. It was like losing by one point. It was a killer," he said. "I'm a winner. That's why I'm glad I went to a winning organization like the Steelers. I can keep my little winning aura going."
Stevenson won at Utah, too, including three bowl games. The most celebrated win was the 2009 Sugar Bowl against Alabama. Before the game, at the coin toss, Alabama center Antoine Caldwell looked at Stevenson and said, "I'm going to kill you." But that's what Stevenson did to Caldwell and Alabama. Utah's No. 10 had three sacks and recovered a fumble in the 31-17 upset.
Of course, he remembers Caldwell's words.
"I guess he just felt the need to say something, but he said it to the wrong person," Stevenson said. "He didn't know me like that."
Stevenson played another terrific bowl game against Cal this past season. He made eight tackles and returned an interception 27 yards for the touchdown that clinched Utah's 37-21 win. It was a performance Steelers scouts still discuss, and may have led to them drafting Stevenson in the fifth round – even after they'd already drafted two outside linebackers and had four veterans manning the two inside spots.
"It was just like the Sugar Bowl," Sylvester said of the Poinsettia Bowl. "I'd just graduated maybe five days before the game and I was really feeling good and experiencing the last time I'd play with my teammates, so I guess it was just a high I was on."
It was nothing like the high Sylvester's been riding since being drafted by the Steelers, though.
"Everything is just surreal," he said. "To go to such a storied organization is just a dream all in itself. Getting that call on April 24, 2010 was just a dream come true. Talking to them on the phone, I was just ecstatic. I really had no words. I did an interview right after I got drafted and it was one of the worst interviews I ever gave, and that was because I honestly had nothing firing in my brain to come out with the words. There was nothing in my mouth I could say because I was so excited. But playing with players that you've only watched on TV, like Ike Taylor and Bryant McFadden, and then seeing Ben Roethlisberger, Max Starks, Hines Ward – all my teammates are really cool guys. And, you know, playing with Troy Polamalu, everybody, just being on the field with them you feel honored. And it's something where you don't want to let them down. It heightens my game, and when I get on the field I'll know my assignments."
Sylvester is learning one of the most difficult positions on one of the most difficult defenses in football. This past spring he played the mack inside position, with the ultimate goal of playing the buck position manned currently by one of Sylvester's boyhood heroes, James Farrior.
"I was talking on the phone to him yesterday as a matter of fact, when I got done with the symposium," Sylvester said. "He's a great guy, just what I expected. I appreciate all the help he's given me and will give me in the future. Just being on the same team that he is, I feel honored and hopefully I can develop into a player of the same stature."
And the progress report?
"With me, the way I learn, I have to know what a lot of positions around me are doing," Stevenson said. "In my defense at Utah, I knew where everybody was. That helped me know and expect where the ball would go. I'm trying to learn that, but, with this crazy defense, it's insane."
Stevenson chuckled to himself, perhaps in respect of the enormity of his task.
"Yeah, it will take me a while," he said. "But with the kind of guys around me to help me, I feel confident I'll learn this defense."
(Learn more about Sly Sylvester by reading the complete transcript of his interview with SteelCityInsider.net.)