Editor's note: This is the third in a series looking back on Vai Sikahema's career in the NFL.
It has become almost a right of passage for professional athletes to reward their parents, especially Mom, with a mansion after signing that first big contract.
I wasn't in that position, even after the Cardinals ripped up my rookie contract and rewarded me with a new multi-year deal that included a bigger signing bonus than the one I was given as a 10th-rounder. NFL contracts aren't guaranteed except for the signing bonuses, so I still had to play to earn the salaries in my contract.
After two consecutive Pro Bowl appearances in my first two years in the NFL, I had as much job security as one could hope for in a league often known among players as "Not For Long." So when the Cardinals moved to Arizona, I had to carefully manage what I'd be able to do to help my parents financially, without jeopardizing our own precarious nest egg. Our second child, another boy we named Leland James and nicknamed LJ after my BYU teammate, punter Leland (Lee) Johnson, was born the summer we arrived in Arizona. Our little family was growing as my career was skyrocketing.
We determined the most immediate relief we could offer my parents was to "retire" my mother from her seamstress job she had since I was a little boy.
Like many LDS women who shared our family predicament, my mother often felt guilty that she had to work to help my father make ends meet, when often her meager wages were not enough. As a family, we were familiar with the Bishop's Storehouse just north of Main Street in Mesa, where we routinely worked every Saturday in exchange for the assistance we received. Once, I remember going on a Scout campout and having my peers laugh and make fun of me when I unwittingly opened a can of peaches that had the "Deseret" label.
It didn't occur to me that a can of peaches from the Bishop's Storehouse would be cause for ridicule. From that day forward I was conscientious of the "Deseret" labels on cans, toothpaste or anything else I took on campouts from the storehouse, removing them with Dad's razor so they looked generic and annoying my parents in the process when, inexplicably, the canned goods in our cupboards were label-less. But all that was in the past as we were experiencing the American Dream in 3-D.
Mom's co-workers at Arizona Needle threw her a farewell party on her last day, and knowing my presence would thrill her, I showed up with balloons, flowers and a cake — playing the role of the "good-son-made-good." I was also anxious to move my parents from the little home where they raised us, to something a little nicer. Not a mansion — just a home in a little better neighborhood that I figured I could pay off within the four years of my new contract. We managed to save enough from all the incentive bonuses from my rookie contract to buy our first home — a modest four-bedroom home with a pool in Gilbert, in an upscale lake-side community fittingly called "The Islands."
When my wife and I discussed our proposal of a new home with my folks, I was somewhat surprised with my mother's reaction. "You kids are all moved out, Dad and I have more room than we need in this home," she said. "Besides, we like our neighbors and don't want them to think we 'made it.' We haven't. You have. We're OK."
Then, almost as an after-thought, she threw in this caveat: "If you want to spend money on us, why don't you take care of our bills for a couple years and let us go on a mission?" My dad wasn't quite sure he wanted to miss my first NFL season in Arizona. Dad especially enjoyed all the perks of the NFL — locker room privileges after games, free shoes, gear, complimentary tickets and even trips to the Pro Bowl in Hawaii.
I was stunned by Mom's request. I had never considered my parents as candidates for a mission at their age. To me, they didn't fit the profile. At the time, my dad was 48 years old and my mom was 45 — not an unusual age for financially independent couples to be called as mission presidents. My folks were far from that, nor did they have any of the requisite church leadership responsibilities to preside over a mission. But they viewed the opportunity to serve as a couple missionary as something beyond their grasp given their circumstances — unless, of course, their NFL son could intervene.
I wasn't so concerned that I couldn't do it. It was whether I could sustain my career long enough to support them AFTER their mission, since there was no guarantee my dad could return to his job in school security. What if I blew out my knee? Concussions? Or they draft that brash shutdown corner/punt return specialist from Florida State named "Neon" Deion? In the NFL, anything could happen.
Keala and I wrestled with those concerns, fasted, prayed and made countless trips to the Mesa temple. In the end, it was simply a matter of faith. I figured if I got injured or my career went south, of the many things I could say I did with my NFL money — what would be better than sending my parents on a mission?
We took a leap of faith. At my mother's instructions, we passed on the obligatory Mc-mansion-for-mom-from-superstar-son thing, paid off their loans, made a lump deposit into their ward missionary fund and made them one of the youngest full-time missionary couples in the Church at age 48 and 45.
It was a proud moment for me, and to this day I don't know that my NFL salary was ever better spent.
At the time, my sister was attending BYU-Hawaii following a mission to Tonga and my younger brother Kap was now serving his mission ... in Tonga.
Mom and Dad's call came in that familiar envelope from Salt Lake. They opened their letter in the same room where I had taken the call from New York two years earlier, informing me I was a St. Louis Cardinal.
"Dear Elder and Sister Sikahema, you are hereby called to serve for a period of 18 months in the Tonga, Nuku'alofa Mission."
Pandemonium erupted just as it did with the news of my draft. Mom just slumped into a chair and burst into tears. Dad and I did chest bumps and were screaming at the top of our lungs like banshees — very un-missionary like.
By the time they left the Provo MTC for the South Pacific, my brother was an assistant to the mission president in Tonga. Guess who picked up Elder and Sister Sikahema at the airport and put them through orientation in the mission office? Yep, Elder Kap Sikahema, their youngest son. Even their mission president, Eric B. Shumway, was a close family friend from his days as a young missionary in Tonga. Pres. Shumway called Mom and Dad to serve in the office with my brother. Dad handled the maintenance of mission bicycles and transfers and Mom took care of finances and record keeping. Elder Kap Sikahema's desk as an AP, was just a few feet away. Weird.
I've never discounted that the security, protection and success I've enjoyed in my professional career may have come from my mother's request to take care of their finances and pay for their mission so they could serve.
I'm so convinced their service in Tonga had such a positive effect on my NFL and TV career that if not for my mother's health problems, I'd selfishly pay to keep them on missions perpetually as a matter of self-preservation.
Pres. Shumway, who returned from Tonga to be the president of BYU-H confided in me that my father, true to form, was absolutely FEARLESS as a missionary, just as he was in the ring as a young man and how he taught me as a young fighter.
After their mission, Mom and Dad returned to Mesa and incredibly, Dad was welcomed back to his job in school security, where he worked another 18 years before retirement. Mom remained retired. My good fortune has been her good fortune.
When my parents first immigrated to Hawaii in 1969 where they worked at the Polynesian Culture Center, my mother's supervisor was an elegant woman named Dorothy Heder. Mom loved Dorothy, who was very kind to her. Dorothy was a tall, slender, beautiful Hawaiian woman who, from time to time, would bring her 5-year-old little girl to work with her. Occasionally, my mother remembers Dorothy being called away for 20-30 minutes, so she'd ask Mom to watch her daughter, a cute and precocious little girl named Keala. Mom had no reason to know that one day Keala would be my wife.
Dorothy died of breast cancer when Keala was just 13; we married after meeting at BYU when she was 18.
Keala has the kind of faith my mother has because her mother, Dorothy, had it.
Even now, after 26 years of marriage, she still takes my breath away when she walks into a room, she's that beautiful. Keala is refined, I'm dropping $60 bucks on pay-per-view Saturday night to watch Manny Pacquiao defend his title against Sugar Shane Mosely. She is the embodiment of grace and class; I knocked out Jose Canseco, then led 30 Polys doing the haka in the ring. She's organized and I'm scatter-brained. She's patient; I'm impetuous. She's reserved while I'm an extrovert. Keala is practical and I'm impulsive. She's a little bit country, I'm a little bit... R&B. Perhaps it's because of our differences that our marriage works so well. Keala also tends to be more optimistic than me, which says a lot because I'm generally a glass-half-full kinda guy.
Following our national championship season in '84, I was so discouraged by my lack of playing time I confided in her I intended to quit. She was an 18-year-old bride, yet she had the maturity to counsel me that if I did, I'd spend the rest of my life wondering "what if?" She encouraged me to meet with LaVell and confidently predicted that Coach Edwards would say the same.
He did. So I stayed. I played a little more my senior year than I did in '84, but I clearly wouldn't have realized my full potential in the NFL without following her counsel. That would've been tragic.
Sometimes her counsel was more luck than wisdom but still, I couldn't dispute her astute observations. At one point in my career, I was stumped with seemingly two good choices — an offer from the Green Bay Packers or the Cleveland Browns. Same money, same offense, both with punt return needs.
She suggested that we go to Green Bay because she liked the Packers' family-friendly atmosphere and was impressed that Packers coach Lindy Infante introduced us to his wife Stephanie. In Cleveland, we never met Bill Belichick's wife. As it turned out, the Browns drafted Texas running back/kick returner Eric Metcalf after we signed with Green Bay.31 comments on this story
As my NFL career was winding down, Keala was confident I could transition into TV and encouraged me to do so without looking back. She stayed after me to complete my course work for my college degree, which I eventually did in 2002 from BYU.
This weekend, I salute and pay homage to my mother, my wife and my mother-in-law, whom I've never met but nonetheless, love, honor and respect for the way she courageously raised Keala despite a failing, cancer-ridden body.
I love you Mom, Keala and Dorothy. Your happiness and comfort is the object of my existence.
Happy Mother's Day.