Doug Robinson: From Tonga to the NFL: Vai Sikahema beating the odds

Ex-Cougar fights through life to honor grandfather’s legacy

Published: Friday, Oct. 8 2010 7:00 p.m. MDT

"It was unfair," says Sikahema now. "I feel sorry for Canseco."

Isn't it like Sikahema to pull off such a feat? His life has been a series of victories over great odds, and every time you think you've heard the last of him, he remakes himself and pops up somewhere else.

His is the classic American success story and the fight a symbol of his life. He immigrated to the U.S. from a tiny island in the South Pacific and, through fierce determination and work ethic, he became a star football player at BYU, a player in the NFL, a college graduate, a popular TV journalist and personality, a beacon for his fellow Tongans and a regional leader of his church. And he's not finished yet.

"He's pulled it all together," says LaVell Edwards, Sikahema's coach at BYU. "It seems to be the way his life has been."

Who is this guy? Who is Vaiangina "Vai" Sikahema? When I contacted him about writing his story, Sikahema replied with an e-mail: "Send me your address and I'll send you a book you MUST read before we do an interview."

"Minerva Reef" arrived in the mail a few days later, a worn, green hardback by Olaf Ruhen. It was accompanied by a hand-written note.

"It will explain for you much about my life and why I succeeded as I have," he wrote.

The book chronicles the story of a shipwreck. In 1962, the Tuaikaepau, a 51-foot wooden cutter, was scheduled to travel from Tonga to New Zealand. Sikahema's father, Loni, a promising 21-year-old heavyweight boxer, signed up along with 16 other Tongan men to take the journey in search of fights and odd jobs to support their families. On the morning the boat was to leave, Sikahema's grandfather, Vaiangina Unga, came to the wharf and insisted that he should travel in Loni's place so the younger man could remain with his wife, who was eight months pregnant with Vai. After a brief argument, Vai's grandfather prevailed.

A couple of days later, the Tuaikaepau crashed into Minerva Reef. They were considered lost at sea, and when Vai Sikahema was born he was named after his supposedly dead grandfather. But 12 of the 17 men survived, including Unga, after enduring 101 days on the reef. It is a legendary tale among Tongans and one that matches the more widely read "Mutiny on the Bounty" in the chronicles of sea adventure and survival.

"It displays all the best characteristics for which Tongans have become known — courage, faith, sacrifice, love and an incredible toughness," Sikahema wrote. "It will help you understand why I was driven to succeed in my life."

The book tells where he came from. Now jump ahead some 48 years to see where he went. Just two generations removed from the Tuaikaepau, Vai Sikahema, like his seafaring forebears, has struck out for a distant place, far from poverty and the Pacific, settling in the sports-mad, blue-collar, gritty city of Philadelphia. In his post-football life, he has made a second career of talking about sports on TV and radio. He earns a big paycheck, owns a nice home, has a wife and four children, and the respect and love of an entire city.

"Hey, Vai!" people call out as he makes his way around Philadelphia. "Yo, Vai, you da man!" He is approached by well-wishers and fans in restaurants and standing on corners and walking the street.

"He is loved in Philadelphia," says Danny Humphrey, a financial analyst and Sikahema's cousin. "He hasn't paid a toll in years. The toll booth attendants know him by name. They say, 'Vai, your money's no good here.' "

Humphrey witnessed the lovefest for the first time a few years ago during the first of many visits to Philadelphia. He was standing on a corner with Vai when a bus passed by with Vai's bigger-than-life photo splashed on its side, and then a cab pulled up that also featured Vai's visage.

"I've been here five minutes, and I'm sick of you already," Humphrey told Vai.

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