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Vai's View: Even 'Mr. BYU' has soft spot for Utes

Published: Saturday, June 11 2011 10:00 a.m. MDT

PHILADELPHIA — I read my buddy Brad Rock's column the other day about the BYU-Utah rivalry with some interest. I did not read the many posts by readers because it's just so predictable.

Brad's piece was timely for me because just last week I hosted the Utah rugby team in my home for a barbecue, then took them on a special "Rocky" tour of Philadelphia the following day to inspire them.

The team trusted me enough they didn't seem to worry that I'd spiked the punch or undercooked the chicken. My station's cameras followed every minute of the BBQ and tour because the Collegiate Rugby Sevens Championships were held in Philly last weekend and it was an NBC network event.

Make no mistake, I'm a BYU guy. I don't think anyone can dispute that if you've followed my career or know me personally. BYU often calls on me for various things. I've spoken in the Marriott Center for devotionals, emceed lots of football banquets, spoken to the football team, broadcasting majors, Marriott School of Business students and the Cougar Club countless times, and am the face and host of the university's new recruiting video for prospective students worldwide. Among my friends, I'm considered "Mr. BYU."

Yet, as Cougar-centric as I am, I don't have any qualms about donning Utah gear. Especially if it's given to me, as Kyle Whittingham did when I visited Utah's spring practices last month at his invitation. Utah rugby coach Blake Burdette, who played football and rugby for the Utes, also left me with red Utah rugby gear. It just seemed natural to be in uniform with the team as we ate together and then ran through the Italian Market and up the museum steps.

It helps that the Utes are coached by Kyle, one of my favorite teammates ever — college or pro. We're close enough that we text frequently and attended a Jazz game on my April visit. Defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake grew up in St. Louis with his mother when I was playing for the Cardinals and I helped recruit him to BYU — an easy task since we're related. Some of the current Utes are close family as well — Harvey Langi, Weslee Tonga, Ron Tongaonevai, VJ Fehoko, Max Moala and Star Lotulelei.

Even more than my love for BYU is my love for the young people of my faith, not all of whom attend my alma mater or are necessarily Polynesian.

I'm encouraged and inspired by them. Frankly, I don't care if they wear red, blue, green, purple or if they're black, brown or white.

I do feel I have the greatest influence among my own people, so, when I'm in Utah, I try to see as many of the Poly athletes as my schedule permits so I can offer counsel and encouragement. Whenever possible, I employ older kids to help in the effort; sometimes they're BYU kids, often they're not. At April Conference, I took former USC fullback Stanley Havili to the priesthood session along with Utah freshman Harvey Langi. I positioned myself between them so I could minister to both, yet still allowing Stanley to offer advice to Harvey about the importance of school (Stanley graduated from SC last winter), being a leader and avoiding trouble.

Ironically, we sat two rows behind Baltimore Raven Haloti Ngata, his cousin Fili Moala of the Indianapolis Colts and Fili's father-in-law, Alan Anae, Robert's brother, who is a physician practicing in California. Alan was sitting between the two NFL linemen and obviously doing exactly what I was doing.

There is a Tongan term, "SOLA", which is a designation for one who visits your homeland from a faraway place. By cultural decree, he/she is to be treated as royalty. Captain James Cook was a "sola" when he visited Tonga in 1778 and gave our home it's nickname, "The Friendly Islands."

The University of Utah Rugby Sevens Team, were "solas'" to me when they came to Philly, especially with their three Poly players. Of the 12 players on the roster, three were non-LDS and most of the LDS kids are returned missionaries. That allows me to see them as more than just, well, Utes.

Dalyn Montgomery, a good friend who is a Utah grad, avid rugby player, former boxer and bishop of the Independence Ward in Philly, arranged the tour for us. We started at the Front Street Gym, a gritty, grimy gym in the heart of Philly's Port Richmond rowhouse neighborhood. Then, Bishop Montgomery drove us to the Rocky Balboa rowhouse in the original movie, the pet store where Adrienne worked, the Italian Market in South Philly where Rocky ran, and finally, the Art Museum with the famous steps and statue of Rocky.

I proudly wore the red Utah shirt given me by coach Burdette, as Bishop Montgomery and I fed the team in my home and showed them the City of Brotherly Love. I loved the rivalry as a player and love it now as an alum. But for me, with so many family members, returned missionaries, coaches I like and great kids on both sides, the lines are increasingly blurred.

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