Millions watched. Cheered. A royal procession. Limousines. Wealth. Prestige. Tears of joy.
No, not William and Kate. I'm talking about the NFL Draft.
Will Cam Newton live up to his promise? Will Carolina regret its choice?
Each year, the NFL Draft holds the future of so many young men and their families in its palm.
Hard to believe, but this is the 25th anniversary of my draft class — 1986.
Ironically, the first pick that year was also a Heisman Trophy winner from Auburn, Bo Jackson, taken by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He never suited up in those cream-sickle uniforms because he had the leverage of being a power-hitting outfielder. He became a Kansas City Royal.
I was taken 253 picks later by the St. Louis Cardinals, who used one of two 10th-round picks to select me, back when there were 12 rounds. Unlike Bo, I didn't have a baseball career to fall back on, nor even a college degree. That came later.
But like so many things in my life, the NFL Draft was a seminal event that came unexpectedly. I mean, completely out of the blue.
I started a total of two games in my BYU career — both in my senior year. I was a solid return man, but did it with guile, vision, quickness and fearlessness — but entirely without speed, the hottest commodity in the NFL.
I ended my BYU career with three fumbles in the Citrus Bowl against Ohio State — two of them inside the 10; one as I was about to cross the end zone. We lost 10-7. When we left Orlando after the game, I believed it would be the last time I'd ever wear a football uniform. That premonition was only confirmed when I wasn't invited to the NFL Combine in February.
When NFL scouts gathered for Robbie Bosco, Kurt Gouveia, Leon White and Glen Kozlowski's pro day, I wasn't even asked to come catch footballs during drills for those marquee stars. So, I prepared to enroll for fall classes. After finals in April, my wife, Keala, and I drove with our newborn son to Mesa, Ariz., to spend a week or two with my parents, who were anxious to see their grandson.
I had even forgotten the draft was held our first weekend in Mesa. The first three rounds were televised on ESPN on Saturday, followed by rounds four through seven on Sunday. Rounds eight to 12 weren't televised but they had regular updates throughout the day.
We had returned from my parents' LDS ward on Sunday, had dinner, and were preparing to take our son to visit friends who hadn't seen him when the phone rang and my mother answered. She cupped the phone and told me it was a long distance call for me from New York. I didn't' know anyone in New York, so I asked her to take a message while I turned on the TV to see if any of my teammates had been drafted.
There was a full-screen chyron of the Green Bay Packers' choices and I saw they had taken Robbie in the third round. I glanced up to see if the phone was free so I could call Robbie to congratulate him only to see Mom still on the phone but waving me over. Annoyed now, I said, "Mom, can you get this guy off so I can use the phone?" She cut me off, "Son, this man won't hang up until he talks to you."
"Hello, this is Vai."
"Vai, this is Larry Wilson. I'm the general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. I'm calling you from New York to tell you we are about to take you with our next pick."
"Next pick? What are you talking about?" I asked.
"Are you watching ESPN?" the voice replied.
"Yeah," I said. "It's on." We were talking in questions. "You talking about the NFL Draft?"
"Keep your eye on the screen."
Totally dumbfounded and smelling a hoax, I yelled for Keala to turn up the volume and to keep her eye on the TV, not telling her why.
Ten seconds later, Keala screamed so loud it startled our sleeping infant son, who wailed uncontrollably causing my parents to come running into the room worried something had happened to the baby.
Mel Kiper was recapping various teams' selections when up popped the St. Louis Cardinals 1986 Draft Class on the screen:
1. Anthony Bell, LB, Michigan State
2. John Lee, K, UCLA
3. Gene Chilton, OG, Texas
4. Carl Carter, CB, Texas Tech
5. Jeff Tupper, DT, Oklahoma
7. Eric Swanson, WR, Tennessee
8. Ray Brown, OG, Arkansas State
9. Kurt Kafentzis, DB, Hawaii
10. Vai Sikahema, RB, BYU
What ensued was complete and utter pandemonium. Chaos. Insanity. I tried to quiet everyone down by waving my arm, as I still had Mr. Wilson on the phone, who I learned later was a Hall of Fame safety who played at Utah. My mother and Keala were crying, our son was screaming and my dad just stood staring at the TV, motionless. I couldn't make sense of any of it.
"Vai, welcome to the St. Louis Football Cardinals," Wilson continued. "You're going to get every opportunity to make our football team. Let me introduce you to our new football coach, Gene Stallings."
My mind was still reeling when I heard a deep, baritone voice with a distinctly Texas drawl say, "Son, how do you say your name? Is it VAL?"
"Hi Coach. No, it's Vai, rhymes with MY."
He informed me that the team would send a plane ticket for a mini-camp in early May and surprised me by asking if my ticket should be sent to my Provo address or my parents' Arizona address. I didn't ask how he got both. I learned in St. Louis that they knew a lot about me ?— team doctors somehow knew that the scar on my right shoulder was from falling out of a landscaping truck when I was 16. BYU didn't even know that.
The most immediate need was hiring an agent. After the draft, I was bombarded with calls but I chose a man from the Bay Area named John Maloney, who represented a bunch of other BYU guys.
In the summer of 1986, we had two major expenses — a $134 monthly car payment for a Dodge Omni and $280 monthly rent for our Provo apartment — utilities included. That was it!
I learned that as a 10th rounder, I was "slotted," meaning my value was predetermined based on the "slot" where I was drafted. In other words, I had ZERO leverage. In retrospect, I could've negotiated my own contract with a simple, "Thank you sir, where do I sign?"
My signing bonus turned out to be $12,000, which after taxes was just under $8,000. I had never seen a comma on a check before. Though we had nothing, we didn't cash it for a few days because we just held it and stared at it.
Years later, I was in a workout group in Phoenix that included the A's great right-handed pitcher Dave Stewart, who told us a great story about their Hall of Fame leadoff hitter, Ricky Henderson. Ricky had just received a $1-million signing bonus when it was rare. Months passed and the team's accounting department called Rickey and told him if he'd lost his check they could cancel and reissue another, but they were worried his signing bonus hadn't come through the bank. Only then did they learn Henderson was so proud of it, he had it framed and hanging prominently in his den.
In a weird way, I kind of understood the absurdity of that story, though I would never see a million-dollar bonus check. Still, that $8,000 dollar check might as well have been a million. We paid our tithing, the agent's fee and then paid off the Dodge Omni. We kept the rest in the bank just in case I didn't make the team and we'd have money for fall semester.
Turned out, we never returned to BYU.
Next week, I'll give you an inside look at how the business of the NFL works — the extent the league goes to protect its image, the product and its players. I'll tell you how contracts work and you may be surprised at what players don't know about the process of being an NFL player.
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