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
As a 15-year-old high school sophomore in 1977, my relationship with my inactive-LDS father wasn't great, in part because I had abandoned our shared dream of becoming a boxing champion in favor of American football, a foreign game to us both.
Certainly, some of it was age-related and immaturity, but I did harbor some resentment that my dad was never there for Fathers-and-Sons outings, or didn't chaperone dances, youth conferences and scout campouts, as other dads did.
Perhaps sensing our fractured relationship, my scoutmaster and youth leader, Neal Nelson, suggested that I invite my dad to a special stake priesthood meeting on a Sunday evening in mid-October. BYU's football team had played Arizona State in Tempe the previous evening but without their All-American quarterback, Gifford Nielsen, who remained in Arizona to be the featured speaker after the team returned to Provo.
Nielsen had torn the cartilage in his knee a week or two before at Oregon State and was done for the year, so he came to the ASU game and our stake fireside hobbling on crutches.
My dad accepted my invitation because he knew I was reaching out but also because Gifford had finished sixth in the Heisman voting as a junior and he was intrigued such a nationally recognized star would speak in our stake center.
Interestingly, one of the few things my dad and I did agree on was our love for Arizona State football. Much of that had to do with ASU's All-American defensive end Junior Ah You, a family friend from Kahuku, Hawaii. Dad played bass guitar in a Polynesian band that performed at luaus and Junior was their Samoan fire knife dancer.
In an era before the NFL, NHL and MLB came to Phoenix, it was the Suns and ASU football. That was it. And aside from facing the Celtics in the NBA finals in '76, most of the time the fan-support ratio in the Valley of the Sun was probably 80-20 ASU. Attending a few ASU games a year with tickets from Junior had been one of the few enjoyable things Dad and I did together.
And because of ASU and the many Cougar faithful in our LDS ward, we were very much aware of BYU and Gifford Nielsen. Basically, we hated BYU. We regarded their passing attack as inferior and didn't understand why a "Y" was on their helmet and not "BYU" — there was space for "ASU" on the Sun Devils' helmets — even their mascot, "Cosmo," wasn't as intimidating as ASU's "Sparky."
Our sentiments changed that October day when we left the stake priesthood fireside.
Gifford Nielsen completely won us over.
He was poised, tall, handsome, charismatic, funny, self-deprecating, but most of all, there was something about his persona, an aura that was difficult for me to describe at 15, but in retrospect, certainly understand it as the Spirit of God. It clearly drew me in.
It would take a few more years to win us over completely, but it started that fall day in 1977.
Even at 15, I was taken with Giff's stories and the way he turned phrases. I was used to seeing snippets of ASU football players on local TV news and head coach Frank Kush's show, and none of them seemed this eloquent. Part of my fascination had to do with the fact I had only been speaking English for six or seven years at that point, so English was still relatively new to me. I was intrigued that a college athlete of such renown could be so well-spoken.
For some reason, I connected it to the LDS Church, I suppose because it owned BYU. Giff looked different, acted different and spoke differently than other college or pro athletes I'd seen.
It's been more than 35 years and I can still vividly remember one of the stories Gifford told as if it happened yesterday.
Two of his defensive teammates were in a religion class where the teacher challenged everyone to share the gospel with a non-member during the week and report on it the following week.
Before they knew it, it was the end of the week and neither had done anything. BYU was in Colorado Springs that Saturday to play the Air Force Academy, and at halftime, they realized they were running out of time and opportunities.
Late fourth quarter and the Air Force quarterback is running for his life, when "Bam!" he's hit simultaneously by both defenders for a sack and underneath the pile — one says, "What do you know about Mormons?" followed by, "Do you want to know more?" from the other.
The audience laughs on cue, then Gifford pauses for effect and drops the punch line: "You guys, get off me, I'm already a Mormon." I was mesmerized with the way he told such a simple story.
Gifford was already a Houston Oiler by the time I arrived in Provo, but his legacy was well-established. BYU football players were often asked to speak at firesides, and remembering how polished Gifford was, I accepted every opportunity to go, typically from Floyd Johnson, our equipment manager who was the unofficial team chaplain.
Consider how those speaking opportunities affected our careers in media and politics: Steve Young and Trevor Matich at ESPN; Glen Kozlowski at WGN radio in Chicago; Nielsen formerly at KHOU-TV in Houston; Blaine Fowler; Todd Christensen; Alema Harrington; Jan Jorgensen and Hans Olsen in Utah sports radio; former BYU baseball player Steve Eager at Fox Dallas; myself at NBC Philadelphia; and former BYU teammate Jason Chaffetz, a Utah congressman. It's interesting to note that few if any of us ever took TV or media classes at BYU. We basically learned to speak extemporaneously at firesides, like the one I first attended with my dad to see and hear Gifford Nielsen.
Of course, as BYU alumni, Giff and I have become good friends. Beyond that first meeting, he's been something of a mentor. I specifically followed Giff's career path following football because he once told me while I was still in the NFL that for him, doing sports on local TV offered him a better life than being an analyst where he'd be required to travel and work Sundays.
That's precisely why I didn't pursue being a football analysts, but rather local TV. Giff assured me I wouldn't make a seven-figure salary as the network analyst, but we could be comfortable and have a better quality of life if I was fortunate to work in a big media market. When I accepted a two-year contract with the Eagles in my final stop in the NFL, I did so because Philly was the largest market of the offers I had. I hoped that if I played well enough and found some TV work at a local station, I might be able to parlay it into a permanent career, just as Giff did in Houston. Amazingly, that's exactly how it happened.
To no one's surprise, Giff became Elder S. Gifford Nielsen in April 2010, when he was called as an Area Authority Seventy in Houston.
He continues to impact people's lives from the pulpit.