In the end, his parents saw all their dreams — paid for with a life of sacrifices — realized. Vai graduated with a degree in broadcast journalism at BYU in 2002 — 17 years after he left the school to join the NFL. His sister Lynette is completing a doctorate and his brother Kap has earned a master's degree. "I'm referred to as the dumb, rich, famous one of the family," Sikahema likes to say.
Sikahema thinks about all this and turns serious. "I am in awe of what my parents did, coming to the U.S. It was incredibly courageous — but not unique. My grandfather boarded an open, wooden boat with 16 other men to look for work across the ocean, using stars as navigation. It's part of the culture to be adventurous and strike out and find new lands and new lives. Maybe that's why always driven to be accomplished and do things."
All you need to know about Sikahema's drive is this: For nearly 30 years, he has carried a pocket dictionary everywhere he goes to develop his vocabulary and speech. When he encounters a word he doesn't know, he turns to the dictionary.
He carved out a broadcasting career with a second language he didn't undertake until he was 8 and learned from watching TV. A poor student, he managed to earn a degree by persisting years later. He made a football career standing only 5-foot-8 and possessing only modest speed, never running faster than 4.6 in the 40.
Sikahema's diction and his obvious command of the language is no accident. While serving a church mission, one of his companions — future trial attorney Dale Afferton — made Sikahema his personal project during their free time. He required Sikahema to read aloud to him every morning. Each day they opened a dictionary, closed their eyes and pointed to a word, and then found a way to work it into their discussions that day.
This has served him well. He gives speeches every week at schools, churches (of all faiths), Eagle Scout courts of honor, charity events. And then, of course, it has enabled him to make a career of speaking on TV and radio.
When he saw the power the media wielded in helping his father find work, he made a mental note of it. While his teammates barely tolerated the media, he viewed their interview requests as opportunities and answered their questions thoughtfully. As a result, reporters tended to gravitate to him.
When Sikahema played for the St. Louis Cardinals, a St. Louis TV station asked local professional athletes to do guest spots. Most couldn't be bothered. Sikahema filled one spot and then hounded the station for more. When the team moved to Phoenix, he was a media favorite — the hometown kid who made good and was articulate and cooperative. He did TV work and wrote a column for the local newspaper (as he does now for the Deseret News). When he retired from football, TV jobs were waiting for him in Phoenix and Philadelphia.
"The thing I tell Tongan youth is that I wasn't a good student, either," he says. "I struggled in school and overcame that because there's something in the American system that allows it. There's a place for you if you work hard."
Kaela, who married Sikahema when she was 18, recognized these traits early in her husband. "Really, we had no real plan," she says. "But in the back of my mind, there was always this thought that things were going to be OK. I knew he was ambitious. It was one of the things I loved about him."
COMING MONDAY: The importance of faith and family to Vai Sikahema and an inspirational journey back home
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