For former Cougar running back and current NBC anchor Vai Sikahema, it was his TV experience that led to a job when he finished playing professional football.
Yet, it was a father/son outing to a BYU football game that changed his career and goals. A simple visit to his alma mater with his oldest son inspired him to complete of his education. Sikahema had two general education classes left to complete when drafted by the Cardinals in 1986.
Nearly 16 years after he left school, Sikahema recently finished his communications degree from BYU. Suddenly the graduation procession and ceremony have new meaning to the Sikahema family.
“We’re all going back for graduation, and I am going to walk,” Sikahema said.
And this fall Sikahema will walk again, this time onto LaSalle University’s campus to begin his master’s degree in broadcast journalism.
Despite his flair for television, Sikahema did not plan on a television career. While playing for the Cardinals, Sikahema was offered a guest spot as a sportscaster for a morning show.
“It sort of changed the direction of what I would do,” he said.
As Sikahema’s football career moved him to Green Bay, Wisconsin and then Philadelphia, he was given more opportunities for television.
“The more opportunities I had to work in TV, the more opportunity I had to work in the off season,” Sikahema said. “At that point I made the decision that I was given these opportunities because I was playing football, and I felt I might as well get the experience.”
It was early October when Sikahema, current bishop of the Cherry Hill Ward in New Jersey, was asked to accompany a group of clergy to New York City to offer counseling and comfort in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
At ground zero, the group would give last rites to the bodies that were found in the rubble.
While walking through ground zero, he was struck by the tremendous devastation, overwhelming smell of jet fuel and burning rubble. Heat from fires below penetrated through Sikahema’s thick boots. Suddenly, a whistle blew.
“All of a sudden the work completely stopped. Trucks, cranes, everything stopped. We turned and there was a group of about 15 family members being escorted onto the grounds,” Sikahema said. “There was a platform they had built overlooking the scene and everybody was quiet. Some people were crying, others were just walking, keeping their heads down. It was just amazing, nobody moved for about fifteen minutes.”
Such silence is in stark contrast to Sikahema’s job as anchor and sports director for the Philadelphia NBC affiliate. Sikahema makes his living sharing the thrills and disappointments of athletes. But for two weeks he was able to convey the heartache and grief to his viewers while imparting comfort to those who were mourning.
Born in Nuku’Alofa, Tonga to dorm parents at the LDS Church-owned Liahona High School, Sikahema developed a passion for reading at an early age. He recalls listening to his father read sports magazines and newspapers to him despite his limited English.
“That had a profound effect on me,” Sikahema said.
Reading is important because it is the key to learning, and much enjoyment and direction can be gained from it, he said.
Sikahema’s high school English teacher, who refused to allow him to simply breeze through class because he was an athlete, inspired and encouraged Sikahema’s writing skills.
“She really worked with me,” Sikahema said. “She gave me D’s, and I worked like crazy for a D when everyone else is giving me A’s and B’s for coming and clipping my fingernails in class.”
She encouraged him to begin reporting for the school newspaper. This was his first step into journalism and allowed him to develope his talent and passion for writing.
Sikahema continues to utilize his talent and love for writing through reporting and free-lance pieces.
During the Winter Olympics Sikahema related the story of how Salt Lake City provided translation for every country represented – something never been done before, to his NBC audience.
The story began by following a young man giving the Russian delegation a tour of Temple Square.
“It was amazing, (watching) this 21, 22-year-old kid walking around speaking Russian with dignitaries,” Sikahema said.
After gaining special permission from the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Sikahema interviewed and filmed missionaries in the Missionary Training Center, including missionaries from the Philadelphia region as well as missionaries on their way to the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Mission.
“You know it’s been really amazing covering stories with television. I would have never expected to be a part of it,” he said.