This is the easiest way I feel like I can affect young children and show them, you can always do something positive. – Stevenson Sylvester

MURRAY — The boy bit his bottom lip as he considered which set of Legos his younger brother might enjoy more on Christmas morning.

He loves WWE wrestling, but superheroes are awfully enticing.

A man wearing a University of Utah T-shirt and a Santa hat stood beside him making suggestions. And although the 11-year old shopper only met Casey Evans a few minutes earlier, he listened thoughtfully to the former Utah football player’s suggestions.

Evans and the boy were part of a charity event organized by one of Evans’ former Utah teammates, Stevenson “Sly” Sylvester. The NFL linebacker, who is currently on injured reserve with the Buffalo Bills, said he teamed up with the South Salt Lake Police Athletic Union to give a couple dozen children some holiday joy and a message of hope.

“Just to let them know there are good people out there in the world, there are people you can trust,” Sylvester said of his purpose. “This is a great time of year to do it, to show it. They are great kids, and PAL does a great job of making sure they’re on top of their school work and good citizens in the community.” Sylvester normally hosts the event — Shopping with Sly — in the city where he’s playing professional football.

“But I’m happy to bring it to the city that I’m living in this year,” he said of his adopted hometown. “I love doing this stuff. I learned a lot from Pittsburgh (where he played from 2010-2013) because they used to do this all the time, and (Utah) Coach (Kyle) Whittingham as well. He instilled in all of us to give back as much as we can.”

Sylvester raised money for the event through his charity, and then he rounded up about a dozen former Utah players to help him with the shopping. South Salt Lake’s PAL program selected about two dozen children from their free after-school program and met the players at the Toys ’R’ Us in Murray on Thursday afternoon.

Sly provided the children with T-shirts and the players with Santa hats, and each child was given $100 to spend in the store. The children searched for their hearts' desires, while the players helped them with tough decisions and a little math.

“This is the easiest way I feel like I can affect young children and show them, you can always do something positive,” Sylvester said afterward. “I remember when I was a kid, doing something like this would have just made my day.” Officer Mitch Howard, PIO for South Salt Lake, said PAL offers any child a place to go after school.

“Everyday after school, all kids are invited, and there is no cost to them,” Howard said. “We actually provide meals to them when they get there.”

The children can participate in recreational sports, including a competitive boxing program, and they receive tutoring.

“We can actually look up their information through our computer system, which tells us what types of things they need to work on, and they can’t say, ‘I don’t have any homework,’ ” Howard said with a smile.

He said PAL, a 5-year-old organization, teams up with various community and business partners to provide the children with opportunities and support.

“It’s phenomenal that a professional football player stepped forward and is willing to help these kids out,” Howard said. “They get to look at these gentlemen, who’ve succeeded in life and know that there are other things … than what they’re experiencing now. They can achieve anything they want in their lives with hard work.”

Sylvester said one of the best aspects of Thursday’s outing was hearing the youngsters asking former players about college, about workouts and about what their experience was like.

The young boy shopping with Evans, however, didn’t worry about anything except how to buy presents for his siblings and himself with his $100 budget.

When asked why he decided to spend his money buying presents for his siblings, who are too young for the PAL program, he answered without taking his eyes off the basket of toys that included Legos, a doll and a WWE wrestling belt.

“Because they deserve presents,” he said. “They’re going to be excited.” Howard said part of the magic of an outing like Thursday’s has nothing to do with the bags of toys.

“To see these kids' faces and their reactions to the positive things put in their lives is just amazing,” Howard said.

Evans said it was a joy for him and his 7-year-old son Jack to participate in Sly’s Shopping adventure.

“We take a lot for granted, I think,” Evans said while signing an autograph for a young man who plays football in Murray just like Evans did. “It was awesome.”

After all the shopping, autographs and pictures, the children climbed back into the vans with the officers who’d escorted them to the toy store. The former players said their goodbyes, and then Sylvester and his girlfriend Sandra McAlman did a lot more shopping. The couple had an extra $1,800 in donations, which they spent on toys for children at Shriners Hospital. Sylvester met with patients at the hospital on Friday afternoon in an impromptu holiday celebration.

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Sylvester said he’s grateful for the support of his friends and former teammates, as well as the opportunity to spread a little holiday cheer.

“An opportunity like this to give back,” he said, “and for these kids to have something positive in their lives, it’s definitely something I want to bring. It’s awesome.”

Twitter: adonsports

EMAIL: adonaldson@deseretnews.com

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