Doug Robinson: The immigrant's song: Vai Sikahema inspires Tongan youths

Published: Saturday, Oct. 9 2010 10:00 p.m. MDT

Vai Sikahema, a sports anchor for Philadelphia's NBC affiliate, interviews Philadelphia Eagles All-Pro safety Brian Dawkins after a game. (Provided by Vai Sikahema) Vai Sikahema, a sports anchor for Philadelphia's NBC affiliate, interviews Philadelphia Eagles All-Pro safety Brian Dawkins after a game. (Provided by Vai Sikahema)

Second in a three-part series

Thousands of Tongan men and women have migrated to the U.S. since the '60s. At great expense, some leave behind family and friends and the balmy weather of their island home to come to a land of strangers, snow and menial jobs, with no education and no marketable skills or career prospects.

They work as airport baggage handlers, landscapers, furniture movers and concrete finishers.

They make these sacrifices so their children will have more opportunities for education and jobs.

But many of the Tongan youths aren't standing on their parents' shoulders to reach higher. They are passing up educational opportunities and settling for the same menial jobs their parents hold. They are wasting the sacrifices of their parents. It is a recurring theme in Tongan communities. It is a recurring theme in Sikahema's frequent speeches to Tongan groups in Utah.

Vai Sikahema and his wife, Keala. (Provided by Vai Sikahema) Vai Sikahema and his wife, Keala. (Provided by Vai Sikahema)

"Vai is definitely a role model for Polynesians because they see someone who is so successful on and off the football field," says Robert Anae, a BYU assistant football coach and Sikahema's former teammate. "As much as he did in football, he's done more in life."

Sikahema has been a pioneer for his people. First Tongan to win a football scholarship to BYU. First Tongan to play in the National Football League. First Tongan to play in the Pro Bowl.

"I recognize what I've accomplished and what it means to Tongans," he says. "It's frustrating to me that these Tongan kids — the first generation of Tongan Americans — have been afforded every opportunity that American kids are afforded, and they are not taking advantage of it."

Sikahema continues. "I appreciate my life. Every day, I get up thankful. It's impossible to forget the sacrifices my parents made."

Vai Sikahema's passport, taken when he immigrated from Tonga as a boy, is the oldest photo he has of himself. (Provided by Vai Sikahema) Vai Sikahema's passport, taken when he immigrated from Tonga as a boy, is the oldest photo he has of himself. (Provided by Vai Sikahema)

The Sikahemas' journey to America was long and difficult. Sione Loni Sikahema and Lupi (Ruby) Potenitila Sikahema left the islands first and settled in Hawaii, leaving their three children with grandparents until they could earn enough money to send for them. They worked in the Polynesian Cultural Center on Oahu for a year before they sent for Vai, the oldest child. Two and a half years later, they sent for the other children.

During their long separation, the children could not talk to their parents because their Tongan village did not have electricity or phone service. They communicated by letters and packages from Ruby. One of these packages contained a colorful Hawaiian shirt for Vai that his mother made so that he would be easy to find in a crowd when he finally arrived at the airport.

Vai arrived in Hawaii when he was 7, but the reunion was brief. Weeks later, he was forwarded to California and shuttled back and forth between relatives in San Francisco and San Diego for a year and a half while his parents continued to work in Hawaii.

Former BYU football player Vai Sikahema reminisces about his playing days during a recent visit to LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo.      (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Former BYU football player Vai Sikahema reminisces about his playing days during a recent visit to LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

Loni and Ruby finally earned enough money to unite their family in the U.S. Unlike so many of their peers, they decided not to settle in a Tongan community. If they were going to be assimilated, they needed to live among Americans. They settled in Arizona in 1970, moving into a converted garage apartment in Phoenix that felt like a furnace. There was no air conditioning, and the dry heat was new and unbearable for them. They spent much of their time sitting in the shade of a park across the street. They used a fan covered with wet towels to cool the apartment. The family hung sheets from the ceiling to divide the living space into small rooms.

Vai began attending school at age 8. He couldn't speak English, and he never really would catch up with his peers in the classroom. He learned the language by watching TV and talking to friends. While other kids were reading Hardy Boys books, Vai was reading Dick and Jane. He was a natural target for teasing, what with his struggles in class, the strange food he brought to school, his difficulties with the language and his strange name. The results were predictable.

Former BYU football players Chad Lewis and Vai Sikahema spend time together at a recent luncheon in Provo.    (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Former BYU football players Chad Lewis and Vai Sikahema spend time together at a recent luncheon in Provo. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

"You can't imagine how many fights I got into because of kids teasing me about my name," he recalls. "By high school, I had developed a reputation as no one to mess with, but I always knew kids laughed behind my back."

If there was one thing the new kid could do, it was fight. One of the reasons Loni brought his family to the U.S. was to launch a boxing career for his son. Loni had followed the Civil Rights movement of the '60s and the career of Muhammad Ali; he believed that boxing, not education, was the path to success for minorities, and he ingrained this in his son. During monthly LDS fast and testimony meetings at church, he nudged Vai to state his intentions publicly. The boy would walk to the podium and tell the congregation, "Brothers and sisters, I'll be the heavyweight champion of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen." And then he returned to his seat and a warm embrace from his father.

Vai Sikahema runs the football for the Philadelphia Eagles. (Provided by Vai Sikahema) Vai Sikahema runs the football for the Philadelphia Eagles. (Provided by Vai Sikahema)

Loni started his son on an arduous training routine in Arizona. Vai woke at 5 a.m. each day to run five miles before school. In the evening, he trained for a couple of hours in the gym. He did this year-round; there is no off-season in boxing. He boxed in tournaments around the Southwest, with father and son sleeping on a mattress in the back of the family truck. Knowing his son would usually be the smallest man in the ring, Loni trained Vai to fight taller opponents, absorbing a half-dozen punches to work inside and pummel the bigger man's body and then unload his left hook. Vai posed a winning record in his 50-plus fights (his precise record and other memorabilia were lost in a house fire).

Loni held down a couple of jobs to support his family, stirring refried beans in a big vat at a Mexican restaurant by day and making pastries at a bakery by night. He had been forced to give up his own boxing career after he married and started a family. Now he wanted his son to fulfill his lost dream.

But Vai's boxing career never happened. He discovered something else when he turned 14 and was starting high school: football.

"I saw an opportunity to play a team sport and be with other kids and not have my head punched in," he says. "I jumped at it. I never went back to boxing. My dad was crushed."

Ruby, who stressed education, was thrilled. She loathed fighting and cried over his bruises. She never watched his fights. When she learned that universities offered scholarships for football, she encouraged her son to play the game and believed he could transfer his boxing skills to the gridiron. Four years later, BYU offered Vai a football scholarship. A poor student, he might never have obtained a college education any other way.

"I thought football was the easiest thing I had done after what I was doing in boxing," says Vai. "Boxing was the reason I was adept at returning punts despite not being fast. It's moving the head and shoulders just slightly and making people miss. You've got to be able to snap your hips to throw punches to bring the force of your legs with you. And the courage it takes to stand under a punt — I never had any fear when I played football."

Football reaped other rewards. As Vai's football career took off in high school, his name began to appear in the newspaper regularly. One story mentioned that his father had never seen him play because he worked at night. Someone saw the story and invited Loni for a job interview at the high school as a security guard. Loni got the job, and it paid well enough that he no longer had to work two jobs. He wound up working that job for 30 years.

"What I learned was that what I did on the football field had an impact on our quality of life," he says. "I also realized the power of the media."

Vai earned a permanent place in BYU lore during his sophomore season by returning a punt for a touchdown against SMU during the legendary 1980 "Miracle Bowl." Following that season, he served a two-year Mormon mission in South Dakota and then returned in time to play for BYU's 1984 national championship team and the 1985 Citrus Bowl team. Undersized and relatively slow afoot, he wasn't drafted until the 10th round, the 254th overall pick, yet managed to turn it into an eight-year career that included two Pro Bowl appearances.

In the end, his parents saw all their dreams — paid for with a life of sacrifices — realized. Vai graduated with a degree in broadcast journalism at BYU in 2002 — 17 years after he left the school to join the NFL. His sister Lynette is completing a doctorate and his brother Kap has earned a master's degree. "I'm referred to as the dumb, rich, famous one of the family," Sikahema likes to say.

Sikahema thinks about all this and turns serious. "I am in awe of what my parents did, coming to the U.S. It was incredibly courageous — but not unique. My grandfather boarded an open, wooden boat with 16 other men to look for work across the ocean, using stars as navigation. It's part of the culture to be adventurous and strike out and find new lands and new lives. Maybe that's why always driven to be accomplished and do things."

All you need to know about Sikahema's drive is this: For nearly 30 years, he has carried a pocket dictionary everywhere he goes to develop his vocabulary and speech. When he encounters a word he doesn't know, he turns to the dictionary.

He carved out a broadcasting career with a second language he didn't undertake until he was 8 and learned from watching TV. A poor student, he managed to earn a degree by persisting years later. He made a football career standing only 5-foot-8 and possessing only modest speed, never running faster than 4.6 in the 40.

Sikahema's diction and his obvious command of the language is no accident. While serving a church mission, one of his companions — future trial attorney Dale Afferton — made Sikahema his personal project during their free time. He required Sikahema to read aloud to him every morning. Each day they opened a dictionary, closed their eyes and pointed to a word, and then found a way to work it into their discussions that day.

This has served him well. He gives speeches every week at schools, churches (of all faiths), Eagle Scout courts of honor, charity events. And then, of course, it has enabled him to make a career of speaking on TV and radio.

When he saw the power the media wielded in helping his father find work, he made a mental note of it. While his teammates barely tolerated the media, he viewed their interview requests as opportunities and answered their questions thoughtfully. As a result, reporters tended to gravitate to him.

When Sikahema played for the St. Louis Cardinals, a St. Louis TV station asked local professional athletes to do guest spots. Most couldn't be bothered. Sikahema filled one spot and then hounded the station for more. When the team moved to Phoenix, he was a media favorite — the hometown kid who made good and was articulate and cooperative. He did TV work and wrote a column for the local newspaper (as he does now for the Deseret News). When he retired from football, TV jobs were waiting for him in Phoenix and Philadelphia.

"The thing I tell Tongan youth is that I wasn't a good student, either," he says. "I struggled in school and overcame that because there's something in the American system that allows it. There's a place for you if you work hard."

Kaela, who married Sikahema when she was 18, recognized these traits early in her husband. "Really, we had no real plan," she says. "But in the back of my mind, there was always this thought that things were going to be OK. I knew he was ambitious. It was one of the things I loved about him."

COMING MONDAY: The importance of faith and family to Vai Sikahema and an inspirational journey back home

e-mail: drob@desnews.com

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