Doug Robinson: From Tonga to the NFL: Vai Sikahema beating the odds
Ex-Cougar fights through life to honor grandfather’s legacy
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
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