SALT LAKE CITY — Vai Sikahema — pro football player, boxer, journalist and ecclesiastical leader — was recently called to be an Area Seventy in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but before that happened he had to overcome fears and doubts — about himself.
It wasn’t as if he hadn’t accepted difficult and varied challenges all his life. As a boy, he crossed the ocean in an open boat with his family. He was a Golden Gloves boxer. He was a student in the U.S. who learned English on the fly by watching TV. He was a football player at BYU and the first Tongan to play in the NFL. He was a sportscaster in a major TV market and then a news anchor.
His life had been one story after another about doing difficult things against great odds, but this seemed too much. During a meeting last fall with Sikahema, a general authority explored his availability for a calling to the general leadership of the church. Sikahema was told the Lord is going to expect more from him, to which he replied, “I’m willing to give everything I’ve got, and I just don’t know if it’s enough. I don’t have the gilded résumé.”
Sikahema went on to explain that many leaders in the church have MBAs and Ivy League educations; many were captains of industry, with managerial experience leading big companies, or professionals who had ascended to the top of their professions. “I was a horrible student,” he explained. “I played football. I anchor the news on TV.”
Sikahema remembers being counseled that the Lord uses everything at his disposal to train his leaders, whether it’s farming, delivering the mail or working as a security guard, which was an occupation of Sikahema’s father. He also was told that the Lord uses these opportunities to help train and prepare his servants, adding that Sikahema’s experiences were unique to him and likely taught him many things that will assist him in his service.
In April, the church announced at its semiannual general conference that Sikahema had been called as an Area Seventy.
“I was dumbfounded,” he says. “I’ve had four months to process this — that’s how long ago I was called. I had to keep it a secret, and that’s hard. Journalists blab everything. I’ve been to a lot of training sessions to learn my duties. It’s like drinking from a fire hose.”
Among other things, in his new role he will oversee 20 stakes, from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, while also continuing to hold down his job as a news anchor in Philadelphia. He wakes every morning at 3:30 and is out the door a half-hour later. He anchors from 5:30 to 7, then goes to the gym before anchoring the midday show from 11 to noon. Sikahema, who has served as a stake president for five years, usually handles his ecclesiastical duties in the evenings and on weekends.
“Like most who get called, I certainly didn’t ask for it — nobody volunteers for these callings,” he says. “lt’s like a full-time job that you do on the side and on weekends. Nobody turns down callings, though, when priesthood leaders issue them. You figure out how you’re going to do it and budget time and find soft spots in your schedule.”
Sikahema is not the first Area Seventy or General Authority with a background in big-time athletics. The Quorum of the Seventy includes former BYU/NFL quarterback S. Gifford Nielsen, former Southern Utah basketball player Peter M. Johnson, former BYU basketball player Brian K. Taylor and former BYU football player Craig C. Christensen, as well as Sikahema. (The late Joseph B. Wirthlin, once a member of the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, was a running back for the University of Utah).
Life after football
The path for Sikahema’s church service in the East was paved by a decision he made after retiring from the NFL in 1994. He was offered sportscasting jobs by TV stations in Phoenix and Philadelphia (he had done TV broadcasting work during his playing career). He had ties to both cities — he played for the Arizona Cardinals and Philadelphia Eagles (as well as the Green Bay Packers) — but his deeper roots were in Phoenix. He had grown up there. He also had lived most of his life in the West.
The obvious choice was Phoenix.
He chose Philadelphia.
“I chose Philly because it would allow people to see who I am and what I believe in an area where there aren't a lot of church members," he says. “The church was in its infancy there and still is. There are 2.5 million people in the Delaware Valley alone, and probably only 15,000 are members. Another way to think about it is this: When I came back to Philadelphia, it was the largest metro area in the Western Hemisphere without a temple.”
His purpose for moving there “has been realized in ways I never dreamed of in 1994,” he says. He was a key figure in negotiations that led Philadelphia to approve construction of the Philadelphia Pennsylvania Temple (dedicated in 2016), with Sikahema working closely with his friend, Mayor Michael Nutter. He is a popular and visible figure in Philadelphia, because of his playing days with the Eagles and his 25-year presence on TV and radio (in 2015, the city council officially recognized him as a “Philadelphia Living Legend”). His faith has been part and parcel with everything he’s done.
When an interfaith group of ministers was formed to travel to New York City to counsel workers at ground zero shortly after the 9/11 attack, Sikahema — the TV journalist and lay church leader — was among those chosen. They consoled policemen, firemen and EMTs who were struggling to cope as they picked up body parts and searched for victims.
As recounted in a three-part Deseret News profile on Sikahema, just two years after he moved to Philadelphia, he was simultaneously called to be a bishop and promoted to sports anchor for NBC10. With great trepidation, Sikahema told management he might not be able to meet all the demands of the new job — specifically, that his new church duties would require him to be at church on Sundays, instead of traveling with the Eagles, and that he would need to be at church on some weeknights instead of the studio. Instead of withdrawing the promotion, as Sikahema feared, station manager Pat Wallace asked, “How can we help?”
“This is a call of God,” Sikahema replied, “and I will move heaven and earth to make certain that my professional duties will not be shortchanged if you allow me to fulfill my obligation."
Wallace generously offered to hire a part-time employee to research and write scripts for Sikahema, and another reporter to cover Eagles road games on Sundays.
"You go fulfill your obligations to your church and to your faith," Wallace said.
Sikahema’s roots in the church run deep. When he was a young boy, his family left Tonga to travel to the New Zealand temple to participate in rites that are sacred to church members. They did so at great personal sacrifice, selling all their personal belongings to pay for the trip and living on the open deck of a ship as they crossed the ocean. His father had to shear sheep for several months to raise money for the return trip.
Eventually the family made its way to the U.S. and settled in a sweltering converted garage in Phoenix. For those who have followed the Utah sports scene since the early ’80s, Sikahema is no stranger. He played in the two greatest football games in BYU history — the 1980 Holiday Bowl — aka the Miracle Bowl — and the 1984 Holiday Bowl, which served as the national championship game.
He returned a punt 83 yards for a touchdown in that Miracle Bowl, in which BYU famously overcame a 45-25 deficit in the last four minutes of the game to win by one point. After playing the 1980 and 1981 seasons, Sikahema served a church mission and returned to the playing field in 1984. During the team’s unbeaten national championship run that season he returned two punts for touchdowns. He was taken in the 10th round of the 1986 NFL draft and during an eight-year career he was a two-time All-Pro selection.
He left football behind in 1994 except to cover it as a TV reporter, but he did make a brief return to the sports arena. In 2008, at the age of 45, he was challenged to a boxing match by retired baseball slugger Jose Canseco. As Sikahema tells it, when he asked Canseco’s agent why they called him, he was told Canseco was starting a second career as a boxer and wanted to do so with a win.
Sikahema, who had had 80 fights as a Golden Gloves boxer as a young man, assured the agent that Canseco was making a mistake, even though he was giving up seven inches and 43 pounds to the baseball player. Sikahema knocked Canseco out in 90 seconds and donated his $5,000 prize money to the family of a fallen police officer.
Afterward, when asked if anything about the match had surprised him, he replied, “Yeah, that it didn’t finish in the first 30 seconds.”
Other than that fight, Sikahema has focused on family, church and his journalism career since retiring from football. He and his wife, Keala, have four children — one son graduated from BYU law school, another son will graduate from Duke this spring with a degree in religious studies and English, and their third son graduated from BYU and joined the Navy. The couple’s daughter lives with her husband in Philadelphia.
Sikahema has carried heavy church responsibilities almost since his arrival in Philadelphia, serving as a bishop, a counselor in stake and mission presidencies, and as a stake president.
Even though he felt compelled to make a disclaimer about holes in his “résumé” he notes, “I gained insight, experience, wisdom and knowledge in church service. I learned a lot about church government, policy, doctrine and life lessons from priesthood leaders, apostles and prophets and my own study and preparation. And I learned things in my marriage and parenting that blessed my service and ministry.
“In that way, I’m like everyone else. But I’m always a bit self-conscious in a room full of experienced church leaders of my own shortcomings. I didn’t graduate from BYU till age 40, well after my NFL career and into my TV career. It’s a miracle I even stayed eligible at BYU. I was on perpetual academic probation throughout most of my undergraduate years.”
Lessons for living
Sikahema, who will be asked to speak frequently to large congregations as an Area Seventy, will certainly have rich experiences to draw upon — the NFL, boxing, his emigration, his humble beginnings, church service, journalism. It should be noted that Sikahema has a gift for storytelling, which he credits to his Tongan roots — “We didn’t have a written language.”
In the course of an interview, Sikahema told a couple of illustrative stories that contain lessons for living. He told one about his first position coach in the NFL, a man who swore and chewed tobacco almost constantly on the field.
“We often size up people at first glance,” he says. “He’s got tobacco stains on the front of his shirt and every other word is profanity. How many of us have dismissed someone like this? He’d invite the running backs to his home once a week and I found out he had wonderful kids and a wonderful wife and was a great man. I saw someone completely different than I had imagined.”
And then he launched into another of his NFL experiences, one in which Sikahema saw a group of kids standing outside the stadium in St. Louis one Sunday as he arrived for pre-game preparations. He noticed that one of them — 14-year-old Barrett Brooks, he would later learn — had cut holes in his sneakers because they were much too small. “That was me — I had done that to get an extra year out of my shoes,” says Sikahema.
He invited Brooks — who was already much taller than the 5-foot-8 Sikahema — into the locker room and gave him a pair of new sneakers. Many years later Brooks was introduced at a press conference in Philadelphia as the Eagles’ second-round draft pick, and he recognized Sikahema among the crowd of reporters.
“Mr. Sikahema, do you remember me?”
“You’re the Eagles’ second-round pick,” said the confused Sikahema.
“The shoes, the shoes!” Brooks said. “You gave me my first pair of brand-name shoes!”
Sikahema immediately remembered the boy — now a 325-pound man — and they immediately exchanged a tearful hug as cameras clicked and reporters watched in confusion. The two developed a friendship and Brooks began what would be a nine-year NFL career that included a Super Bowl title with the Pittsburgh Steelers. After he retired as a player, Brooks followed his mentor into TV sports journalism, doing NFL commentary for NBC.24 comments on this story
“I give the shoes to this boy and then he walks away from my life and I don’t see him again for 10 years, when he turns up as an NFL draft pick on the very team I ended my career with and the very team I am covering as a journalist!” says Sikahema. "How does that happen? We minister to people all the time; we just don’t see the result. Sometimes God gives us a glimpse of what we’ve done.”
And then he begins still another story that draws from his experiences on the football field, already fulfilling the words that were shared with him last fall.