Vai's View: Campouts, campfires and lessons learned along the way

Published: Friday, June 15 2012 12:09 p.m. MDT

Vai Sikahema with Sally Sue and Neal Nelson, who were his youth leaders as a boy growing up in Mesa, Ariz.

Vai Sikahema

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Editor's note: This is the fourth in an occasional series that follows and explores Vai Sikahema's quest to find and thank the people in his life who assisted him in his youth. Read about Marty Klein, Barbara Nielsen and Ross Farnsworth

Neal Nelson is the reason I grew up loathing BYU.

Nelson was my Scoutmaster and the biggest BYU fan I've known in the 32 years I've been personally associated with BYU.

Because he was constantly talking about BYU this and BYU that, like the rebellious teenager that I sometimes was, I became a contrarian simply to annoy him. I became an Arizona State Sun Devil fan. And sometimes over campfires, we would debate and banter back and forth about BYU versus ASU, who were both in the Western Athletic Conference then and just about every sport you can imagine. We debated who were the better LDS quarterbacks, BYU's Gifford Nielsen and Marc Wilson or ASU's Danny White and Fred Mortensen? Who had the better Polynesian players and defensive ends, ASU's Junior Ah You or BYU's Mekeli Ieremia? Who had the better uniforms and team colors? Better mascots? Who had the better stadium? Who had better cheerleaders? Ok, I always conceded that one because I was smart enough to see that BYU's cheerleaders were prettier.

Neal Nelson seemed to be an expert on everything to us Boy Scouts. Even cheerleading, because he had been one in college. He was also on the debate team, which is clearly why we Scouts were at such a disadvantage.

Neal Nelson was the most knowledgeable man about sports I've ever known. He had an encyclopedic knowledge about teams, players and statistics. We didn't know it as young men, but Brother Nelson was a volunteer statistician for the BYU football team when the games were played where the Richards Building is now and they only drew 2,000 fans. "The biggest reaction from the crowd," Neal told me, "was when someone flew a paper airplane from the top of the stands until it landed on the field." As BYU's statistician, he sat in the press box, typically with scouts of upcoming opponents, so he picked their brains about players, teams and strategy.

Basketball at BYU, on the other hand, was a completely different situation.

"Attending a game at the old Smith Fieldhouse was not just a game," Neal said. "It was an experience. The pep band would play Herb Albert Brass Band music and the place would just transform into a festive experience unlike any other." Neal Nelson knew something about every sport. And usually, he harbored strong opinions to boot, which made our debates all the more lively and interesting. He encouraged us to challenge him and one another — respectfully, of course — in everything because he felt strongly conversation and competition drew the best out of us.

We also learned to play all kinds of games and sports because of him. The first time I ever played football was on a mutual night. Our mutual and Scout activities always ended with a tug of war or some kind of team competition. Not everyone in the troop was athletic, so Brother Nelson would insist our competitions had to include EVERYONE — you'd lose or be docked points for neglecting a team member. He cleverly devised ways for us to always include the weakest among us, fostering unity and camaraderie.

Brother Nelson had the habit of meeting with me privately before every event or competition to solicit my support, even when I didn't have leadership responsibilities. Years later, he would tell me it was because he felt my support typically determined the success or failure of our activities. Much of that had to do with the fact I was the best athlete, as my peers naturally took their cues from me, but I was also very vocal and opinionated. Still am, I guess — vocal and opinionated, I mean. Brother Nelson would tell me later he did it because he saw I had natural leadership potential, but in the same breath, cautioned me that some of society's worst individuals were also natural leaders.

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