First in a three-part series
Vai Sikahema tried to warn him. An agent representing Jose Canseco, the former Major League Baseball slugger, called to propose a boxing match between Sikahema and Canseco. Sikahema, the BYU graduate and former professional football player who is now a popular TV sportscaster in Philadelphia, thought the fight was a bad idea.
"You called the wrong guy," Sikahema told the agent. "He's got no chance."
This was the summer of 2008. Sikahema was 45 years old by then and hadn't played football in 15 years or boxed in 31 years. Canseco, famous for home runs, his bodybuilder physique and his admitted use of steroids, was a year younger and much bigger and still trying to hang onto his baseball career in the bush leagues. Divorces and legal issues had beset him with financial difficulties, which is why he turned to boxing.
"You don't want to do this," Sikahema continued. "Canseco is going to be in trouble."
The agent was surprised. How big are you, he asked?
"Well, Canseco is 6-4, 250."
"I'm telling you he's in trouble. Does he know what a Tongan is?"
"Well, he'll find out. I come from a warrior culture and we fight till one of us is lying on the ground. I grew up boxing."
"Canseco has five black belts."
"OK, we'll see."
Canseco and his backers didn't know that boxing was the reason Sikahema had come to this country in the first place. They didn't know that his father had brought his family from Tonga to live in a hellish hot garage in Arizona so he could train his son to be a fighter. They didn't know that he spent his youth boxing around the West, living out of the back of a pickup truck, and that he might have fulfilled his father's plans for him if he hadn't discovered something better. There was one other thing they didn't know: His father had trained him specifically to fight big men, because he knew all his opponents would be bigger than his son. He had been taught to weather blows to get inside, then pummel the body and unload that left hook.
The fight was arranged for Atlantic City. The Philly media jumped on it. Channel 10 — Sikahema's employer — ran special half-hour programs on the bout. Sikahema knew a defeat would risk his considerable popularity in a fight town like Philly, but he wasn't worried. If he appeared overmatched to most observers, his victory would be considered that much better. As a local leader of the Mormon church, he was more worried about how the fight would be perceived by fellow church members than by Canseco.
"This guy is big and a bruiser," Sikahema's cousin, Danny Humphrey, told him. "If you go out there and get beat up, it's bad. There's your TV career and your position in the (church) stake presidency. What will it be like if you show up at church with black eyes?"
"I'm not worried about winning," said Sikahema. "I just want to make sure it's the right message to send to the youth of our church."
Humphrey sounded another warning in the locker room before the fight — "Vai, this guy is huge. All he needs is to hit you with one punch."
"He's not going to touch this face," said Sikahema.
Canseco went down the first time just 30 seconds into the fight. Sikahema burrowed in close, dropped low and came up with a hard left hook that had all of his weight behind it. Canseco went down the second time with an overhand right and stayed down. The fight had lasted 1 minute, 37 seconds.
Sikahema donated $5,000 of his winnings to the family of a slain police officer.
"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.
This was shortly before he saw a couple of commercials on Ch. 10, the local NBC affiliate, promoting its lead sportscaster with a song called "My Vai," sung to the tune of the Mary Wells hit "My Guy."
"Vai and Bon Jovi run a tight race for which one the blue-collar folks love the most," says Humphrey. "He has everything they embrace — he's a minority, a blue-collar type athlete, a man who wears his feelings on his sleeve, a Rocky figure who overcame all the odds to become a pro football player and, finally, the man they turn to on TV for their sports news."
After stints with the Packers and Cardinals, Sikahema played the final two years of his NFL career for the Philadelphia Eagles as a running back and return specialist. He endeared himself to Philly fans forever with one play: During a 1992 game against the rival Giants in New York, he returned a punt a club-record 87 yards for a touchdown and then squared off to the goalpost and began pummeling it repeatedly like a boxer on a speed bag. The goalpost stunt has followed him everywhere, and even now fans who see him on the street will imitate him boxing those goalposts.
After his career was finished, Sikahema made a smooth transition to TV and radio. He has served as sports director and sports anchor for WCAU/Ch. 10 since 1996. He is the most popular sportscaster in the fourth largest TV market in the country. He also co-hosts a daily two-hour sports-talk show with John Gonzales called the "Vai & Gonzo Show" on ESPN Radio/The Fanatic.
Three times a day he drives the 40 minutes to Philly from his home in Mt. Laurel, N.J. Up at 7, he runs five miles, showers and then drives to Philly for the radio show. He returns to New Jersey to work out at the gym and run errands, naps for a half-hour, showers again and leaves in time for his evening TV news show at 6. He returns home again for dinner and then drives back to Philly at 9 p.m. to do the 11 p.m. news, arriving at home at about 1 a.m. On Saturdays he sleeps till noon.
"It's a crazy schedule, but I love my jobs," he says
His popularity has transcended sports. He does a weekly TV segment called "Wednesday's Child," featuring a child who is up for adoption. His employers have capitalized on Sikahema's engaging personality and wide appeal. The TV station has chronicled his personal life, including a pilgrimage he and his family made to Tonga, his family history, his graduation from BYU eight years ago, his speaking engagements at church firesides, his American citizenship ceremony a decade ago, his volunteer work at Ground Zero, and the buildup to his boxing match with Jose Canseco. The radio station features a "Vai Vs." series in which he undertakes various challenges — running a 40-yard dash under five seconds, performing 100 pushups in less than a minute and so forth.
"There is no one like him," says Chris Blackman, WCAU's vice president of news. "He's got a sincerity that is just infectious. He's immensely popular here. He's just a good person and it comes through."
So it has all worked out for the kid from Tonga. He could serve as a poster child for the poor immigrant who overcomes all the odds — language, money, poor grades — to succeed in America. Now he has arrived at another crossroads in his life. With his children nearly grown, his athletic career finished, his TV career going strong, his finances secure, Sikahema is looking for new challenges and causes.
He will continue to urge his fellow Tongans to work hard and seek education with his frequent firesides and speeches. He is considering a teaching career and the pursuit of a master's degree and a mission for his church. And then there's his current passion: He has invested money in technology that utilizes turbine engines floating on the sea to generate hydrogen, which is then converted to electricity. The prototype will be operable in Australia later this year and then Sikahema hopes to see it employed by Tonga and the other island nations.
"It could power all of Tonga someday," he says. "It would cut the cost of power to a fraction. Yes, I stand to gain financially, but I can live without any of this. What is significant to me is that I'm involved in a project that will significantly improve the quality of life for the people of my country and relieve them of the grip of fossil fuels."
Sikahema might easily settle into a life of ease as he nears his 50th year with a long list of accomplishments behind him — a life of golf and country clubs — but it is his nature to achieve and undertake new challenges.
"I always had this sense of my life that I would do things, and do a lot of things," he says.
Coming Sunday: Vai's journey from poor Tongan immigrant to BYU football star