"You can't imagine how many fights I got into because of kids teasing me about my name," he recalls. "By high school, I had developed a reputation as no one to mess with, but I always knew kids laughed behind my back."
If there was one thing the new kid could do, it was fight. One of the reasons Loni brought his family to the U.S. was to launch a boxing career for his son. Loni had followed the Civil Rights movement of the '60s and the career of Muhammad Ali; he believed that boxing, not education, was the path to success for minorities, and he ingrained this in his son. During monthly LDS fast and testimony meetings at church, he nudged Vai to state his intentions publicly. The boy would walk to the podium and tell the congregation, "Brothers and sisters, I'll be the heavyweight champion of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen." And then he returned to his seat and a warm embrace from his father.
Loni started his son on an arduous training routine in Arizona. Vai woke at 5 a.m. each day to run five miles before school. In the evening, he trained for a couple of hours in the gym. He did this year-round; there is no off-season in boxing. He boxed in tournaments around the Southwest, with father and son sleeping on a mattress in the back of the family truck. Knowing his son would usually be the smallest man in the ring, Loni trained Vai to fight taller opponents, absorbing a half-dozen punches to work inside and pummel the bigger man's body and then unload his left hook. Vai posed a winning record in his 50-plus fights (his precise record and other memorabilia were lost in a house fire).
Loni held down a couple of jobs to support his family, stirring refried beans in a big vat at a Mexican restaurant by day and making pastries at a bakery by night. He had been forced to give up his own boxing career after he married and started a family. Now he wanted his son to fulfill his lost dream.
But Vai's boxing career never happened. He discovered something else when he turned 14 and was starting high school: football.
"I saw an opportunity to play a team sport and be with other kids and not have my head punched in," he says. "I jumped at it. I never went back to boxing. My dad was crushed."
Ruby, who stressed education, was thrilled. She loathed fighting and cried over his bruises. She never watched his fights. When she learned that universities offered scholarships for football, she encouraged her son to play the game and believed he could transfer his boxing skills to the gridiron. Four years later, BYU offered Vai a football scholarship. A poor student, he might never have obtained a college education any other way.
"I thought football was the easiest thing I had done after what I was doing in boxing," says Vai. "Boxing was the reason I was adept at returning punts despite not being fast. It's moving the head and shoulders just slightly and making people miss. You've got to be able to snap your hips to throw punches to bring the force of your legs with you. And the courage it takes to stand under a punt — I never had any fear when I played football."
Football reaped other rewards. As Vai's football career took off in high school, his name began to appear in the newspaper regularly. One story mentioned that his father had never seen him play because he worked at night. Someone saw the story and invited Loni for a job interview at the high school as a security guard. Loni got the job, and it paid well enough that he no longer had to work two jobs. He wound up working that job for 30 years.
"What I learned was that what I did on the football field had an impact on our quality of life," he says. "I also realized the power of the media."
Vai earned a permanent place in BYU lore during his sophomore season by returning a punt for a touchdown against SMU during the legendary 1980 "Miracle Bowl." Following that season, he served a two-year Mormon mission in South Dakota and then returned in time to play for BYU's 1984 national championship team and the 1985 Citrus Bowl team. Undersized and relatively slow afoot, he wasn't drafted until the 10th round, the 254th overall pick, yet managed to turn it into an eight-year career that included two Pro Bowl appearances.
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