Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
Vai Sikahema plays football and tennis, not the violin. He's been known to sing in the shower, not in public. His whole family is musical, but him? Not so much.
Still, when the Mormon Tabernacle Choir asked if he'd like to do a promo for the choir's five-city summer-tour visit next week to Philadelphia, where Sikahema lives and works, one that would involve putting him in the choir seats to sing with the choir, Sikahema jumped at the chance.
"That's a bucket-list kind of thing," he said. "It's something you dream about but don't think will ever happen. Everyone who sings in the shower or their car wishes they could be here."
Sikahema was in Salt Lake City to get acquainted with a new grandson, so he was able to go to a choir rehearsal and sing two numbers with the choir, the chorus of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "Take Me Out To The Ballgame." The first one is "such a signature song for the choir, it's privilege to do that," he said. The second one, a baseball standard, was light and fun, and for that Sikahema donned a Phillies baseball cap, and then several choir members pulled out baseball caps of their favorite teams.
The choir has not been in Philadelphia since 2003, and this year actually marks the 100th anniversary of the first time the choir went to that city. "It's our biggest venue, so we really wanted to provide something special in advance," says Scott Barrick, general manager of the choir. The concert is Thursday.
The choir is also scheduled to perform in two concert halls in Virginia, another in western New York and in Toronto.
Sikahema, who played football at BYU before completing a stellar pro career that ended in Philadelphia, was the first Tongan to play in the NFL. Since retiring, he has been the sports director for WCAU, the NBC affiliate in Philadelphia.
"He's hugely popular there," said Barrick. "We always look for local angles when we go on tour, but you don't get ones any better than this. Philadelphia is renowned for its love of sports and for its arts and culture. This is the perfect mix."
Something else tickled Sikahema about the appearance. "As far as I know there is one Tongan in the choir. He's world-famous in Tonga. Maybe now I can trump him," Sikahema joked. He will do a story for his TV station, "and then we'll post it on the website. It'll go viral in Tonga; they love the choir there."
And they love it in Philly, he said. "This choir is America's Choir. It doesn't need to be sold, but people need to be aware it is coming. It will be a unique visit."
For the choir, the appearance of such a distinguished guest was also a big deal. "It's not often we get a former football player in our choir seats," said choir director Mack Wilberg, "especially not one of his caliber. And he's such a genuine, nice person. It's been a great experience to have him here."
Choir president Mac Christensen agreed. "To have such a talented, handsome, broad-shouldered, pure, kind, wonderful person here means everything to us. We're honored and blessed to have him do this."
And it's the kind of thing that the choir gets a kick out of doing, said Barrick. "They love doing stuff like this. It's a lot of fun."
Choir member Elaine Brewster is a big Sikahema fan. "I told him that I'm a singer, so I don't yell at football games. But there was one time I did: one time, when he made a 90-yard runback for a touchdown. The way he ran, the way he wove between the players — it was one of the prettiest things I've ever seen. I yelled so much, I couldn't talk for three days. I just told him about it — and I told him it was worth it!"
For Sikahema and his family, the choir appearance was a night to remember. "It means so much to him," said his wife, Keala. "To be able to sit in the choir seats and sing with America's Choir and know that it will be seen in the city where he lives, has been very exciting. And the choir has been so great."
The two songs the choir sang with Sikahema were not just one-and-done knock-offs. They had to be done several times to meet the choir's exceptional standard of excellence. "I sang, but I didn't sing loud," said Sikahema. "I didn't want the coach to take me out. I couldn't believe how detailed Mack is; he wanted it just right. To do this was amazing. To be there, surrounded by the beauty and majesty of the music, was just an incredible experience."
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