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.
The following week in Chicago on Monday Night Football, I took a second-quarter punt 65 yards against the Super Bowl champs, only to be tripped at the 5-yard line by the punter. In week three, I scored on a sweep in San Diego in garbage time, all but securing a spot on the team, as I was showing I could contribute offensively in a pinch. In the final preseason game, Coach Kuhlman approached me during calisthenics to tell me I wouldn't play. I initially worried until realizing the only ones NOT playing were the veteran starters and me.
I made the team.
No one prepared me for it. My wife Keala flew in with our 9-month-old son, Landon, and we stayed in a downtown Holiday Inn for two weeks while we searched for a place to rent. Two cousins of mine drove up a U-Haul of our stuff from Provo and towed our little Dodge Omni. I was an NFL player driving a four-speed, manual transmission Dodge Omni without air-conditioning or power windows. But it was free-and-clear thanks to my signing bonus, which was more than one could say for the Mercedes and BMWs in the players' lot.
I had signed a two-year deal with a club option, meaning the team had the option to retain me for a third year at a predetermined salary or simply let me go, which in the NFL, they can do at anytime, anyway.
The minimum salary in 1986 was $50,000. As a 10th-rounder, I signed for $60,000 for year one, $70,000 for year two and $80,000 if the club exercised its option to retain me a third year. I naively thought if I could just play one year, we'd be set — at least until I graduated.
My parents' combined salaries as a seamstress and security guard were never more than $30,000, so to me, $60,000 was more than I could have ever imagined. But I learned that because we were low-balled on the salary, the club offered lucrative "incentive clauses" — $25,000 if I made the Pro Bowl, another $25,000 if I was named All-Pro, $20,000 if I was among the top five punt returners in the NFC, $20,000 for top five in kickoff returns, etc. By being so generous with the incentives package, the club wanted to appear charitable.
But for them, what's the chance a 10th-round rookie reaching any of those incentives, much less making the team? And if I did, they're more than happy to pay because they're geniuses for drafting you.
In 1986, I made the Cardinals geniuses — at least in the late rounds, because only the eighth-round pick, Ray Brown, and I panned out. Ray retired in 2006 after 20 NFL seasons — mostly for the Redskins and 49ers. I joined Saints running back Rueben Mayes as the only two rookies on the NFC Pro Bowl squad. I was also named to the AP All-Pro team. I also finished No.1 in punt returns and No. 3 in kickoffs. I repeated in '87 for my second Pro Bowl and led the conference in both return categories again.
We didn't even own credit cards, so we used our ATM card to retrieve cash to pay for hotel incidentals at the Pro Bowl. I was 24 and Keala was 20, so we weren't even old enough to rent a car in Hawaii, even if we had credit cards. Fortunately, a Honolulu Toyota dealership gave us a car to use for the week in exchange for an appearance at their store to sign autographs.14 comments on this story
After qualifying for all of the incentives in my contract for two consecutive years, the Cardinals made two announcements, one major and the other not so significant: 1) The team was relocating to Arizona; and 2) they were exercising their option for the third year by tearing up my contract and rewarding me with a new multi-year deal.
We were headed home to Arizona where my parents still lived, with a new contract that would allow me to bless them.
On Friday, I'll explain why my mother refused my offer of a new home, but instead surprised me with a different request. It's my Mother's Day tribute to her and my wife, Keala, who talked me out of quitting football at BYU after we won the national championship.