Editor's note: This is the second of a three-part series looking back at Vai Sikahema's NFL career.
There are few things in sports more excruciating to watch than an NFL prospect who expected to go high in the draft, but gets dropped or doesn't get picked at all. In 1995, Mel Kiper famously touted BYU quarterback John Walsh as a top-10 pick, only to see his stock fall to the seventh round to Cincinnati.
Conversely, imagine the euphoria if you didn't plan on it, then suddenly a call comes informing you that you've been drafted!
For me, it was as they say, a new lease on life. My BYU career, though filled with spectacular moments, wasn't personally fulfilling because I failed to live up to my own expectations. After LaVell signed me, my dad hugged him and exclaimed in broken English, "Goach, my son will be All-American." I was never even All-WAC.
I grew up in Mesa, Ariz., — a Mormon settlement founded by pioneers dispatched by Brigham Young in the 1870s. From Mesa, I went directly to BYU — one LDS community to another.
St. Louis may as well have been Sodom and Gomorrah rolled into one. It was quite a culture shock.
When I arrived at Busch Stadium to receive my gear, the Cardinals' equipment man, Bill Simmons, a crusty, tobacco-chewin', cussin', but otherwise sweetheart of a guy, issued me shoulder pads, a helmet, four boxes of cleats, sweats, jocks, socks, an ashtray and a carton of Marlboros.
When I refused the smokes, he offered a case of Redman or Copenhagen chewing tobacco instead. Ahhh ... no thanks.
Everyone seemed to dip tobacco, even coaches. Some of the older players smoked. A 12-year cornerback named Wayne Smith smoked TWO cigarettes at a time — one in each hand. The Cardinals locker room at pre-game and halftime was like a bar, it was so hazy.
It occurred to me this may have been one reason the Cardinals were never in the playoffs. I've been around the NFL for 25 years now and thankfully, cigarettes have largely disappeared; however, chewing tobacco is still widely used. Interestingly, my teammates who smoked only lit up during the regular season; training camp was all business.
NFL training camp is a modern-day gladiator school. It's a test of will, strength, skill, physical and mental toughness. Each year, old war horses stave off valiant attempts at their jobs from young, fast, big and ambitious college kids.
When I arrived in camp, my running backs coach, Hank Kuhlman, told me that if I wanted to make the team, quite simply — get into a fight everyday. "It'll take a few years for us to assemble the right personnel offensively, but we know as a new staff we can improve immediately by finding tough guys to play special teams," he told me. "Force us to notice you." It was valuable advice.
I was in a scrap nearly everyday with linebackers, defensive backs, even our punter, for daring to push me out of bounds after a return. Any perceived slight was cause for a brawl. I had a boulder-sized chip on my shoulder. Being the smallest guy on the team, I think it made an impression — not always for being the toughest, but sometimes the dumbest.
The fighting only helped, though, if you could play. I quickly learned that the understanding of basic defensive coverages I learned as a freshman gave me a huge advantage over my competition. The route tree we used at BYU was the exact same in the pros, so I knew how to sit in the open "windows" versus zone and how to juke a linebacker or safety covering me man-to-man.
But my trump card was returning kicks. My preseason debut was on national TV in the annual Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio, against the defending AFC champion New England Patriots. On their first punt, I returned it 91 yards for a touchdown.
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