When the NFL lockout ended Monday, the first text I received came from the Philadelphia Eagles' rookie fullback, Stanley Havili, out of USC.
We're not blood-related, but I regard Stanley as a nephew, and he calls me "Uncle Vai." I've known Stanley since he was a little boy, maybe second or third grade, when he was running around at his older brother's football games.
My younger brother, Kap, coached Stanley's older brother, Sione, at East High School in the mid-1990s. Kap also coached Stanley when he starred at Cottonwood High School five years ago, which is when I really got to know him.
I helped recruit Stanley to BYU, and he strongly considered it, but in the end, the appeal of playing for the glitzy USC Trojans, who were coming off a national championship season, was just too much. Not to mention that Stanley is a running back and 'SC is "Tailback U." When he arrived at 'SC, they were clogged at tailback with high school All-Americans from all over the country, but Stanley was too talented to sit on the bench. So, head coach Pete Carroll moved him to fullback, where he started as a true freshman.
Even after he signed with the Trojans, and throughout his career at USC, we stayed in touch. I was proud when he graduated in the winter with a degree in public policy, management and planning. On my visits to Utah, if he was home, we'd get together for lunch or dinner. Our first cousins married a year or so ago, so we're connected that way, too. In April, we went to the Priesthood Session of general conference together.
Well, after he arrived in Philly Monday afternoon, Stanley texted and asked if I could pick him up from his team hotel as he had the evening free. Ironically, because of the breaking news of players returning to work, I was doing my live reports for our evening news from the Eagles' practice facility, the Nova Care Complex. As I was leaving the facility, Stanley's running backs coach, Ted Williams, a friend who's been with the team for 12 years, stopped to tell me how much he looks forward to coaching Stanley. Before he came to the NFL, Ted coached at UCLA under Terry Donahue, so he joked, "the only thing wrong with Stanley is that he's a Trojan."
I picked up Stanley and we went to my home for dinner, family home evening and for some unwinding and relaxing before his first NFL training camp.
Stanley is 6-foot, 240-pounds, but in street clothes, looks more like 220. Only in his spandex football pants do you see how thick his thighs and derriere are —classic Tongan features. He is movie-star handsome, and my wife loves Stanley for his quiet humility and the way he always takes his own dishes to the sink, despite her protest. Even in demeanor, he's a paradox. Sort of like his misleading physical features. He's soft-spoken, but on the field, he'll tear your heart out with a spoon.
Following dinner, we just sat at the table and talked. Just the two of us. He seemed a little nervous and pensive, like a kid about to begin school at a new junior high. He picked my brain about the NFL, Philadelphia, contracts and parts of the city where players live. In the process of answering those questions, I also encouraged him to attend the LDS Institute and student ward on the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) campus. I told him that two of his teammates on the current roster are LDS, linebacker Stuart Bradley from Highland High School and Nebraska and offensive lineman Fenuki Tupou, a Tongan from Sacramento who played at Oregon and who's father is the bishop of a Tongan ward. Stanley said he knew of Fenuki Tupou, because he played with his younger brother Christian at USC.
Stanley is the sixth child in a family of eight. In our discussion, he excitedly told me his younger sister, Lesieli (Leslie), just got her mission call to Jamaica. I shared with Stanley my experience of helping my parents by paying for their mission after my rookie year and how it blessed my career. He told me he had already thought of it, that when he makes the team, he'll take care of Lesieli's mission.
We discussed finances and how important it is that he pay his tithes and live on less than he'll make, which should be easy given how much NFL players make, yet amazingly, most professional athletes live paycheck to paycheck. Stanley had recently bought a nice 2007 used car — or pre-owned as they're now called. I counseled him that having financial discipline means paying off that car, keeping and driving it, despite the fact all his fellow rookies and teammates will be driving 2012 BMWs, Land Rovers and Benzes.
We discussed his legacy. He told me after wearing jersey No. 1 at Cottonwood, he went to USC hoping to wear the same. But USC assistant Steve Sarkisian told him to forget his high school number and begin a new legacy. So, he chose No. 31.
When he left USC, new head coach Lane Kiffin informed him that Stanley's probable replacement is a fellow Tongan, fullback Soma Vainuku, who requested Stanley's No. 31 jersey as a tribute to his favorite Trojan. After hearing this, I told Stanley his jersey number may be a part of his legacy at USC, the way No. 44 is at Syracuse, which was worn by Jim Brown, Heisman winner Ernie Davis and Floyd Little. I told Stanley his No. 31 at USC may become legendary, certainly among other Tongan fullbacks who, like Soma Vainuku, may follow him there. We talked about other ways to leave a more lasting legacy than just merely a jersey number.
As our evening concluded, I gathered my family for a quick family home evening, and we knelt for family prayer. Before I returned Stanley to his hotel, he asked me for a priesthood blessing.
Stanley just closed and turned a chapter of his life, having finished playing football at one of the country's legendary programs. Now, he's about to embark on a new chapter that will hold unexpected twists, turns and surprises that will prove exciting, exhilarating and, if things break just right, he'll get a HUGE financial boost that could bless him, his family and others for generations. We counseled together about the wise management of those resources so that it can bless those the Lord intends to bless through him, not the least of which, is him.
I've often said that NFL training camps are modern day gladiator schools. They test your skill, will, strength, speed, power and mental toughness. As a competition addict, I LOVED training camp. I loved the masculinity of it, the food, bunking in college dorms, the brutish nature of living temporarily as men away from our families and the physical nature of the sport.
Apparently, Stanley does, too. He's been training in Salt Lake with fellow Tongan pros Haloti Ngata, Chris Kemoeatu, Fili Moala, Manase Tonga and a few others. Stanley is a gym rat who loves to lift, sweat and stay in shape.
On his first day of camp yesterday, Stanley caught his first break: The Philadelphia Eagles announced last night they released five veteran players, among them, last year's starting fullback, Leonard Weaver, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in October from which he hasn't fully recovered.
Stanley Havili will battle veteran and incumbent Owen Schmidt for the starting job. Eagles head coach Andy Reid's pass-happy offense is tailor made for Stanley's strengths. Stanley caught 12 TDs in his USC career from his fullback position, occasionally as an H-back and even from the slot as a wide receiver.
My money's on Stanley — in a manner of speaking, of course.
Vai Sikahema is the Sports Director and Anchor for NBC10 Philadelphia and host of the "Vai & Gonzo Show" on ESPN Philadelphia Radio. He is a two-time All-Pro, two-time Emmy Award winner and was a member of BYU's 1984 National Championship team.