One of the great things about living in the east where we don't have any family nearby is that we've created our own network of extended family within our church community, with my work, with neighbors and with others who away from their own family.
Our Thanksgiving dinners have traditionally been an eclectic collection of families and individuals who have come to the Philadelphia area for work, graduate school, military duty, to nanny, an occasional student athlete and, of course, almost always a player or two from the Eagles.
We've had a long list of interesting people come through our home for Thanksgiving dinner in the 20 years we've lived in the east. One of the most interesting was Leonid Clark, a faithful black convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who played trumpet, French horn and saxaphone for a long list of R&B artists that included James Brown, Teddy Pendergrass and Barry White.
Leonid joined the church in New York City after his divorce and moved to our LDS ward for a time while he taught music at a local university before he passed away. I held out hope that James Brown, Teddy Pendergrass or Barry White might sing at the funeral but it didn't happen.
Our dinner this year included a young BYU couple — AJ and Amy Reall and their little girl Jane — who are here working for Lockeed Martin. AJ is from Missouri and Amy grew up in Colorado but her family has since moved to Alpine, Utah. They met at BYU and married after graduation. Lockheed Martin hired AJ for a management program, making it his first job out of college.
We were also joined by Shannon Weaver, a young single adult from California who came east a few years ago to help a cousin who was sick. In that process, she wandered from church activity but ended up renting an apartment in our LDS ward boundaries, which is how we became friends. My wife is Shannon's visiting teacher and has been helping her return to church.
And Bryan Rowley is a fixture in our home even when it's not Thanksgiving, so he's a regular.
Partly because of Eagles' head coach Andy Reid's commitment to signing BYU players, there has been an unbroken string of Cougars in Philly since Andy became the Eagles' coach in 1999.
That list includes long snapper, Morris Unutoa, quarterback Ty Detmer, tight end Chad Lewis, linebacker Justin Ena, running back Reno Mahe, wide receiver Zach Collie, offensive lineman Scott Young and currently, offensive lineman Dallas Reynolds.
A few more have come for dinner who weren't Cougars but simply because they were LDS — Hawaii offensive lineman Tala Esera, Oregon State offensive lineman Alai Kalaniuvalu, Utah State wide reciever Kevin Curtis and Weber State fullback Marcus Mailei. Sometimes they're neither Cougars nor LDS but they come simply because they're Polynesians as was the case with Idaho State linebacker Pago Togofau and UNLV lineman Lonnie Palelei.
Earlier this week, I received an email from the Eagles' public relations staff informing me the team had just signed a couple of new players to their practice squad, among them was former Utah center Zane Taylor.
The team sends these notes to all of us in the local media on a daily basis to keep us updated on signings, roster cuts, injuries, etc. I hadn't thought much of it until my nephew Stanley Havili, former USC fullback and also a member of the Eagles' practice squad, showed up for dinner with Zane yesterday.
Zane was the Utes' starting center since his sophomore year and hails from Moab, Utah. My buddy Bryan Rowley, another former Ute, was almost giddy that he got to sit next to Zane at dinner. It was fun to hear them talk of mutual friends and experiences as Utes.
It was an interesting discussion as well as some good natured ribbing about each other's schools: PAC12 vs. independence; USC, BYU and Utah. It was fascinating to hear from Stanley how USC recruited him from Cottonwood High School in Salt Lake. He told us Pete Carroll told him that if he came to USC, he would have a chance to start immediatly as a freshman. But then Carroll added, "You should know up front that I'm going to recruit the best runningbacks in the country next year and the following year and every year you're at 'SC.We are likely to sign them and I will tell them the same thing about starting right away."
Carroll did and typically signed the best high school runningbacks in the nation throughout Stanley's stay at 'SC. Amazingly, Stanley started at fullback for the Trojans all four years despite the annual competition that rolled into USC's program.
Stanley told us that kind of recruiting is done to weed out prospects who aren't willing to compete for jobs every year, which makes 'SC similar to NFL camps: No one's job is safe. That attracts a certain kind of athlete but it also chases away those unwilling to perform each week in practice and games.
Zane signed with the New York Jets as an undrafted, free agent last summer but was released at the final roster cutdown. Tampa picked him up and placed him on its practice squad for five weeks until the Eagles signed him this week to its practice squad.
Zane married his high school sweetheart and they have a beautiful two-month old little girl that Zane proudly showed off from images on his cellphone.
Clearly, he misses his family, especially because it's Thanksgiving. Because he's on the practice squad, he could be signed by any team if it placed him on the regular season roster or he could simply be dropped to make room for another team, which is what happened to him in Tampa. There's little stability in the NFL and even less on the practice squad. So, Zane worries if it makes sense to send for his wife and daughter because the Eagles may simply release him or another team may sign him and he'd have to pick up and move again. It's especially worrisome with Christmas approaching.
Stanley flat out says he's not hosting any family or visitors until he makes the regular season roster and has a starting job.
Such is the transient life of the NFL.
For one evening, it seemed the two professional athletes at our table were happy to get their minds off of football.
That is until the Cowboys and Dolphins kicked off and we all retreated to the family room to watch.
Football, friends and food.
Gotta love Thanksgiving.
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.