Phoenix Cardinals halfback Vai Sikahema, who has made the Pro Bowl in each of his two NFL seasons as a kick returner, laughs when he hears he's considered one of the slowest return men in the league.
"I probably am. I even joke about it myself," Sikahema said. "It's kind of amusing when people bring up my speed or lack of it. I figure if enough people believe I'm slow, they may be watching as I run past them."The 5-foot-9, 191-pound Sikahema broke his own club single-season record last year with 44 punt returns for 550 yards. He tied for third place in the conference in punt returns with a 12.5-yard average and was sixth in kickoff returns at 22.4 yards.
In 1986, Sikahema was the NFC's best punt returner with a 12.1-yard average and was third in the conferebce in kick returns at 22.9 yards.
He became only the fifth player in NFL history to return two punts for touchdowns in one game - going 60 and 71 yards in a 21-17 win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Dec. 21, 1986. His 145 yards in punt returns in that same game also set a club record.
"I'm not as fast as some of the other guys in the league, but I'm fast enough to take kicks back for long distances," Sikahema said. "I'm fast enough to do the job I'm assigned to do. That's all I need to worry about. I think speed is overrated."
Sikahema was underrated when he came out of Brigham Young and was chosen by the Cardinals in the 10th round of the 1986 draft.
Few football experts figured he'd make the team and, according to the Cardinals, become the first native of the tiny South Pacific island of Tonga to earn a spot on an NFL roster.
"That's what they said. Had I listened to any of that, I probably wouldn't have. But I didn't bother," said Sikahema. "I was naive enough to think when you get drafted, you're supposed to make the team. I came in thinking I had a legitimate spot on the squad. As it worked out, it was the best thing for me."
Cardinals coach Gene Stallings can't say enough good things about Sikahema.
"He does not have the great speed that a lot of the great return people have, but he has a knack of making people miss him," Stallings said. "He can catch the ball and explode and get to his maximum speed pretty quickly. He has the ability to make that first guy miss him, which is the key, and that's what all the great return people have."
Sikahema also was used as a running back in third-down situations his rookie year and rushed for 62 yards on 16 carries while catching 10 passes for 99 yards and one TD.
Last season, he was exclusively a kick returner and the Cardinals appear ready to reward him financially for his second straight Pro Bowl trip.
Currently in the option year of a contract that paid him $70,000 last season, Sikahema said he expects to soon sign a new two-year pact worth $375,000 - $175,000 for this season and $200,000 for 1989.
"My goal this year is to go to the Pro Bowl again. If I'm having a Pro Bowl-type season and playing the caliber of ball I played the last two seasons, I think I can help the team get to the playoffs."
The Cardinals, who moved from St. Louis last March, will be playing their home games at Arizona State University's 72,000-seat Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe. The last time Sikahema played there was in 1979 when he was an all-state senior running back at Mesa (Ariz.) High School, leading his team to the state Class AAA finals in spectacular fashion.
"I caught a pass on a fourth-and-32 play with about a minute to go" and ran for the game-winning, 76-yard touchdown in the semifinals against Phoenix St. Mary's, Sikahema recalled. "The last game I played there was about a week later when we lost in the finals to Tucson Amphitheater.
"I have a lot of fond memories of that stadium, though," said Sikahema, who moved with his parents from Tonga to Hawaii and then to Arizona when he was a teen-ager. "I'm excited to get back there and play in front of my family and friends."