Steven Ortiz Jr. is trying to put Puerto Rico on the map. The Minnesota Golden Gophers defensive back was born in New York and attended high school in Arizona, but Boricua blood flows through his veins. With Hurricane Fiona leaving hundreds of thousands of people without water or power, he decided to use his latest NIL deal to help.
Ortiz recently signed a deal with The Kitchen, a restaurant in Minneapolis’ Midtown Global Market. The restaurant created a meal for him and agreed to donate 100% of the proceeds to Puerto Rico for a whole month, starting Oct. 1. A lot of his family and friends are on the island, and he is currently unable to talk to them because of power outages.
The timing of the deal happened to be the perfect opportunity for Ortiz help his island, as he signed it just before the hurricane hit. His manager, Josh Mason, said he understood how important Puerto Rico is for Ortiz, so he arranged for René Morales — the manager for international pop star Bad Bunny’s basketball team in San Juan — to help share the news of his achievement. When the disaster struck, they thought it would be inappropriate to promote a meal when millions of people were suffering. That’s when Morales suggested using the deal to help those in need.
Ortiz said he can’t even imagine what people in Puerto Rico are going through at the moment, so he loved the idea of using his latest business venture to help those in need. The meal that The Kitchen owner Destinee Shelby made for him was inspired by his background. It includes four empanadas and a blue protein shake. Empanadas are serious business for Ortiz, who would only ever eat them when his aunt came to visit and made them for him. He decided the only way to do it right was to call her and ask for the recipe.
“My tÍa [aunt] was on a call telling them what to do, because making empanadas is so specific. If you mess up one ingredient, the whole thing is over with, it’s not going to taste as good,” Ortiz said.
Ortiz requested traditional empanadas, which are filled with ground beef and shrimp. Shelby agreed, but she also made some with her own twist. She made some with mac and cheese and turkey, and some dessert ones as well. For the taste test, Ortiz brought seven people with him and they all agreed the chef hit it on the dot.
Puerto Rican food is not the only thing Ortiz holds close to his heart. His football career started because he looked up to Puerto Rican athletes. As a child, Ortiz was mostly interested in playing baseball but did watch a little bit of football. He grew up in the Bronx and was therefore a Giants fan. When he saw Victor Cruz, another athlete with a Boricua background, Ortiz decided to give football a try.
It worked out well for him, as he is now playing the sport at the Division I level and dreams of someday going to the NFL. He said he hopes to inspire the next generation of Puerto Ricans to pursue their passions and never let their situations stop them from dreaming.
“I bleed red white and blue. Puerto Rico will stay with me wherever I go. Representing my country (sic) feels like an honor, because not too many Puerto Ricans play football,” Ortiz said. “I’m trying to help them motivate themselves, chase their dreams. Just trying to put my country (sic) on the map, that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Ortiz wears the jersey No. 21, which is also not a coincidence. He said he chose that number because of Roberto Clemente, the Pittsburgh Pirates legend.
“I have his Puerto Rican jersey from when he played for Puerto Rico way back in the day.” Ortiz said. “He died in a plane crash trying to give back … I read his book, and ever since that happened, I just stayed motivated to wear 21.”
Ortiz wore a different number in high school but promised himself he would wear No. 21 in college. He plans on getting a tattoo of the number when he graduates.
Since the news of his NIL meal deal came out, Ortiz said a lot of his teammates and coaches have asked how they can help and promised to go try the meal. Other Puerto Rican players in the Big Ten conference have reached out to him, as well as multiple fans.
Ortiz said he is grateful people are interested in the cause and hopes to continue finding ways to help those in need. Recently, he also arranged to use his current deal with Duke Cannon to donate personal hygiene items to Puerto Rico. Although he is just one student athlete, he knows he has the power to make a difference.
“You never know, that one little donation could really help somebody,” he said. “I just want to motivate people to help other people.”