Doug Robinson: Mormon faith infuses all aspects of life for Vai Sikahema

Published: Monday, Oct. 11 2010 11:45 a.m. MDT

In the 1950s and '60s, Polynesian converts to the LDS Church made great sacrifices to travel to the nearest temples in New Zealand or Hawaii from around the South Pacific to perform temple work for their families. The Sikahemas, who had never left Tonga, scrimped and saved for 10 years and eventually sold their few meager possessions to take their children to the temple in New Zealand in 1967. They sailed from Nuku-alofa, Tonga, to Nadi, Fiji, then traveled by bus to the other side of the island to Suva, where they slept on the floor of a chapel and were fed by local church members. The next day, they flew from Suva to Auckland and drove two hours to the temple in Hamilton. They stayed several months in New Zealand while Loni, Vai's father, earned money for the return trip by shearing sheep for local church members.

It was Sikahema's religion that led him on his own journey across the country to settle in Philadelphia following his retirement from football. After returning to his off-season home in Phoenix, he was offered jobs by TV stations in both Phoenix and Philadelphia. He chose Philadelphia over his hometown "because it would allow people to see who I am and what I believe in an area where there aren't a lot of church members."

Sikahema wound up playing a role in the planned construction of an LDS temple in Philadelphia. He was contacted by the LDS Church to arrange a phone call between church leaders and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, a friend of Sikahema's. He was sitting in the mayor's box at Citizens Bank Park, watching a Phillies baseball game when the call came, and he remained on the line when they informed the mayor of their intentions to build the temple.

"I was given specific instructions not to tell the mayor what the call was about, only that the church had a major announcement to make regarding the city," recalls Sikahema. "I told him, 'Mayor, the church doesn't do these things lightly. It will mean millions of dollars to your city.' "

When issues later arose concerning the temple property, he was invited to attend a meeting between the mayor and church officials. He told them what the temple meant to Mormons and shared the story of his family's sacrifices to travel to the New Zealand temple.

"Vai is a very popular media figure here," says Corbitt, "and he has been instrumental in the acceptance of the Philadelphia temple."

It says something about Sikahema's standing in the community that when an interfaith group of ministers was formed to travel to New York City to counsel workers at ground zero shortly after the 9/11 attack, Sikahema was among those chosen. They consoled policemen, firemen and EMTs who were struggling to cope as they picked up body parts and searched for victims.

So who is Vai Sikahema? Maybe he is a devout Mormon and a soft-hearted man who comforts 9/11 workers and stays in contact with kids from his "Wednesday's Child" show and invites a station intern from the inner city to his home for dinner and encouragement. Maybe he's the guy described by Blackman when he says, "You can't say anything bad about Vai. I've seen him do things for people no one knows about. When he walks into a room, he lights it up."

But there is a tough, explosive side to Sikahema, the part of him that made him a pro football player and a boxer and a playground brawler, and he doesn't suffer nonsense. One day during his first year of TV work in Philadelphia, he and his photographer arrived late to the Philadelphia Phillies locker room without knowing it had been closed to media. Suddenly, Phillies second baseman Mariano Duncan emerged from the training room, screaming expletives at Sikahema for being in the clubhouse.

Sikahema dropped his microphone and moved toward Mariano, screaming, "I don't give a damn who you are; I will kick your (butt) right here right now! Let's go!" Teammates jumped in to prevent a fight, and things were eventually smoothed over.

"These days, I just bite my lip when I see a player or coach berate a media member," says Sikahema, but the truth is, there is still some of that Tongan warrior in his blood. In a way, that warrior spirit is what brought him to Philadelphia in the first place. During a BYU game in San Diego in 1981, fans were abusing the family of quarterback Jim McMahon in the stands. Sikahema's father left his seat and told the fans to shut up. It quickly escalated into a fight between two college kids and the elder Sikahema. The former boxer dispatched both of them quickly and spent the rest of the game listening to the action on his car radio to avoid the police.

"Jim McMahon learned about it, and it really endeared my father to him," says Sikahema. "Years later, when Jim was with the Eagles, he went to management and encouraged them to sign me. And they signed me in part because of that."

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