Last in a three-part story. Parts one and two looked at Vai Sikahema's unlikely rise from poor Tongan immigrant to BYU and NFL football star who has become a media celebrity in Philadelphia. The final installment looks at Sikahema's commitment to his faith and an inspirational journey back to Tonga.
It should have been a thrilling moment. In 1996, just two years after he began his full-time broadcasting career, Vai Sikahema was invited to a meeting and offered a promotion to sports director and sports anchor. This meant he would anchor the sports news at 6 and 11 on weekday nights and cover the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday. It was a dream job, but Sikahema's elation was tempered by one problem: He had just been called to serve as a bishop in his Mormon ward.
How could he reward his bosses' generous offer by telling them he had more compelling duties that would preclude him from meeting all the demands of his new job? How could he explain that he needed to be at church on Sundays, instead of traveling with the Eagles? How could he explain that he needed to be at his church on weeknights, as well, instead of the studio?
Sikahema sought inspiration in the temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and found it.
"I could see in my mind's eye exactly what I was supposed to do and what I was supposed to say to my bosses," he says. He immediately wrote these thoughts on the back of a business card, and two days later, he met again with station manager Pat Wallace and news director Steve Doer.
"There's something you should know," he began. "I don't know if this will make a difference in my promotion, but there might be some conflicts in my personal life."
He told them about his calling as a bishop and that it would require him to perform church duties on weeknights between the 6 o'clock news and 11 o'clock news and all day Sunday. Sikahema was surprised by what happened next.
"What can we do to help you?" Wallace asked.
Overcome with emotion, Sikahema told them how he felt about his church. He concluded by saying, "This is a call of God, and I will move heaven and earth to make certain that my professional duties will not be shortchanged if you allow me to fulfill my obligation."
Wallace generously offered to hire a part-time employee to research and write scripts for Sikahema and another reporter to cover Eagles road games on Sundays.
"You go fulfill your obligations to your church and to your faith," he said, with this caveat: that he arrive at the studio a half-hour before his two nightly newscasts.
Sikahema's faith infuses every aspect of his life. He currently serves as second counselor in a stake presidency, and he talks openly about his beliefs on the air when they are relevant to topics of the day.
"We know that his religion is very important to him," says Chris Blackman, WCAU's vice president of news. "It's a part of him, but without being overbearing."
During an off-the-air discussion about Tiger Woods with ESPN's Sal Paolantonio, Sikahema recited a quote from former LDS Church President David O. McKay: "No success can compensate for failure in the home."
Paolantonio wound up using the quote on the air, although he did not identify the source.
"He's a natural leader," says Ahmad Corbitt, the Cherry Hill, N.J., stake president. "His counsel is wise, measured and inspired. He's a man of God who's very committed to the gospel and to his family."
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."
So it all came back to Loni again, one way or another. His father had brought him here and then unwittingly sent him to Philadelphia, where he lived his father's faith and even returned to his father's sport briefly.
In 2007, Vai, Kaela and their four children retraced the journey that Loni and Ruby had bravely undertaken with their children to the New Zealand temple 40 years earlier.
They traveled first to Tonga so their children, who had been raised in luxury and attended private schools, could see where their father began his life. He wanted them to understand why he scolded them when they wasted food or didn't take advantage of opportunities. They stayed in the former home of his grandmother in a small remote village without TV and only an hour of electricity a day. There wasn't a grocery store or 7-Eleven anywhere. The fisherman next door provided fish from the sea, and another neighbor provided vegetables from her garden. When the fisherman failed to catch fish one day, they ate only yams for dinner.
"This is how you lived?" Vai's children asked.24 comments on this story
From Tonga, Vai and Kaela took their children to the Hamilton, N.Z., temple — Landon, 24, LJ, 22, Trey, 20, and Lana, 16. Sikahema had come full circle — "back to where it all began."
"I've got this dream life," he says, weeping quietly. "I married the most beautiful girl at BYU. My kids were all Eagle Scouts and missionaries. Why did this happen to me? There's not a day that goes by that I don't drop to my knees and thank the Lord. What did I do to deserve this?"