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High School Football Opened Doors for Vai Sikahema and His Family

Welcome to Why We Play, a series of discussions with current players and NFL Legends about their youth football experience and why they play the game.

Vai Sikahema wanted to play football as a kid. There was just one problem — Tonga, where Sikahema was born, did not have youth football, or any kind of football for that matter.

"Tonga isn’t a football place — you played rugby," Sikahema said. "My father played rugby and by his account was a really good rugby player."

And by the time his family immigrated to Mesa, Arizona, Sikahema had taken up another sport — boxing. He won a Golden Gloves title in his weight class when he was 14 years old.

"I didn’t have time for football (because) I was boxing," Sikahema said. "We would get in the back of a pick-up truck and go to boxing tournaments every weekend."

But when high school came around, Sikahema finally got his chance to play football. 

"When I arrived at high school, I wanted to play a team sport," he said. "All my peers were playing, and all the cute girls were walking around with the football players.

"Initially it was hard. I didn’t know how to wear the pads. I didn’t know the Xs and Os of the game. It took time to figure all of that out. All of that was difficult, but once I learned it, football became a beautiful game for me."

Sikahema was good enough to attract attention from the local paper, which sent a reporter to interview him. The article mentioned that Sikahema's father rarely got to see him play because he was juggling two jobs.

"That night, we got a call from the superintendent of schools," Sikahema said. "He told my dad to go to the principal of the high school to see him about a position at the school as the security guard. My dad went and found out not only were there good benefits, but the job paid more than both of his jobs combined.

"After he took the job, I recognized early that our quality of life was enhanced. And he not just got to see me play; he was getting paid to see me play. It wasn’t so cool for me to have your dad driving around the field on a golf cart. But it was a good thing for the Sikahema family."

Soon, Sikahema was also getting attention from college scouts. 

“My parents didn’t know the rewards of football, other than my father getting his job," Sikahema said. "Then they realized our son might actually benefit from this."

The two-time all-Arizona player ended up accepting a scholarship offer from Brigham Young University. Primarily a punt and kick returner for the Cougars, Sikahema contributed to BYU's 13-0 national championship season in 1984. 

Sikahema was selected in the 1986 NFL Draft by the St. Louis Cardinals. He played eight years in the league, making the Pro Bowl as a return specialist in his first two seasons. He spent five years with the Cardinals before stints in Green Bay and Philadelipha, and retired in 1994. 

After 26 years as WCAU-Philadelphia's sports director and news anchor, Sikahema retired in 2020.

Sikahema is the first Tongan to play in the NFL. Since he was drafted in 1986, 14 other players born in Tonga have played in the league. 

"As an immigrant coming to this country, playing a team sport made life easier," Sikahema said. "Not that I knew it at the time, but I assimilated into a new country much easier because I learned how to play football. I made friends easier, I got along with the other players. It was great."

Photo: AP/Damian Strohmeyer


  • High School Football
  • NFL Players and Legends