Divinely inspired confidence lifts former pro football player, broadcaster Elder Vai Sikahema

From the varied adventures and experiences of his own life, Elder Vaiangina (Vai) Sikahema knows well the importance of confidence.

If a college or professional football coach asks you to return kicks or punts in front of a stadium filled with loud and crazy fans — well, you better have confidence. 

And when television cameras begin transmitting your in-studio sports report to thousands of Philadelphia-area news viewers, again, you better have confidence.

But Elder Sikahema’s understanding of “confidence” only deepened earlier this year when President Russell M. Nelson issued him a call to serve as a General Authority Seventy.

“We often hear the quote in Church that the Lord qualifies those whom He calls — and I feel that way,” the Tongan-born leader told the Church News. “And even if I don’t feel up to the task, I do have confidence that the Lord will have me ready. And I’ll work as hard as I possibly can.”

Beyond the Lord’s confidence-boosting assurances, Elder Sikahema draws upon his own multigenerational legacy of Latter-day Saint faith.

Blessings on the Isles of the Sea

In 1907, his great-grandfather Iki Tupou Fulivai was working as the wharf master at Vava’u in Tonga — one of the busiest and most beautiful harbors in the Pacific. One day, a pair of Latter-day Saint missionaries arrived. They were greeted by Fulivai, who learned English during his prior travels around the globe.

The wharf master invited the missionaries to spend the evening at his home and later asked them to teach his children. Elders William O. Facer and Heber J. McKay fulfilled the request, living in Fulivai home and teaching his children to read — and about the restored gospel.

The Fulivai family’s conversion remains one of the rich chapters in the Church’s history in Tonga, where more than half the population are reported to be Latter-day Saints.

Elder Sikahema is a tough man. He was raised by his father, Loni Sikahema, to be a boxer. He excelled in the bruising world of professional football. But he fights back tears when he considers his family’s commitment to and faith in the gospel. 

And he humbly traces the Lord’s hand when he considers his new calling to the Seventy — and the promised blessings being claimed today by his fellow Tongans and Pacific Islanders.

Elder Vaiangina (Vai) Sikahema was called to be a General Authority Seventy during the April 2021 general conference.
Elder Vaiangina (Vai) Sikahema was called to be a General Authority Seventy during the April 2021 general conference. Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

When Vai was still a boy, the Sikahemas immigrated to the United States, searching for new opportunities. “My father was a boxer in Tonga, and his master plan was that I’d one day be the heavyweight champion of the world. So I began training as a boxer when I was a kid.”

But after starting high school in Mesa, Arizona, he discovered the gridiron. He soon began playing football. “I’d never played team sports before,” he said. “Having teammates was a lot of fun, and I excelled at it.”

By his senior season he was on the map of college recruiters, beginning a life in the public eye culminating with his recent call as a General Authority Seventy. Ultimately, he accepted a scholarship to play at Brigham Young University. 

Serving a full-time mission was not in his plans when he arrived at the Church-owned school in Provo, Utah. “But I found myself around young men who were deeply committed to living the gospel, and I wanted to be more like them,” he said. “So a mission became part of my path.”

In 1982, he stepped away from college football for a time to serve in the South Dakota Rapid City Mission. He remains grateful for the many people he met at BYU who helped show him a sure and steady path.

Building champions for families, Church service

The late legendary BYU football coach LaVell Edwards once told his former running back, “Vai, I’ve often wondered if the purpose of our program was for championships, or to build champions.”

Coach Edwards went on to explain that his primary concern at the Cougar helm was preparing young men to become leaders in their families, professions and Church congregations.

Elder Sikahema is thankful to be counted among the many beneficiaries of such concerns.

“The most important things in my life happened while I was at BYU, and they have nothing to do with football,” said Elder Sikahema. “I found my testimony. I decided to go on a mission. And when I returned home from my mission, I met my wife (Keala Heder Sikahema) on the BYU campus. And then we started our family at BYU.”

As a Cougar athlete and as a full-time missionary, he also began honing communications skills that have been essential to his professional and ecclesiastical duties.

Many Latter-day Saint sports fans knew of Elder Sikahema before his name was called for a sustaining vote in April’s general conference. He competed on the Cougars’ 1984 national championship team and later played professionally for several National Football League teams. He was twice named to the Pro Bowl before transitioning to a successful career as a Philadelphia news broadcaster.

But “football player” or “TV anchorman” was always something the genial 58-year-old did — it was never who he was.

“I never relied on being a professional athlete or a broadcaster as my identity,” said Elder Sikahema. “I identify first as a son of God and as a Latter-day Saint.”

He is also a husband, a father and a priesthood holder — all eternal identities. He is grateful that his wife will be at his side as he travels the world now as a General Authority.

Sister Sikahema is a native of Hawaii’s North Shore on the island of Oahu. She is grateful to have also hailed from a family and a community secured by their Latter-day Saint roots.

The couple’s shared legacy of faith has guided their decision-making while navigating the challenges of raising a family amid the demands of professional sports and news broadcasting.

But Elder Sikahema never categorized his professional and athletic endeavors from his religious beliefs.

“It has never been a challenge,” he said. “Some of my favorite friends in the NFL were Muslims, Catholics or Jews. I accepted them, and they did not find any reason not to accept me.”

That does not mean his beliefs were never tested. “People will challenge you. But when they see you are consistent in your beliefs, an odd thing happens. Those same people protect you.”

Like anyone else, the Sikahemas have only 24 hours to fill each day. While raising their four children, they prayerfully sought guidance on how to find balance in their lives. Such divine direction was critical when the kids were young and Elder Sikahema was playing football. 

Finding balance through Christ

Despite their scheduling demands, the couple found ways to place the Lord at the center of their lives.

“That was an impressionable time for our young family,” said Sister Sikahema. “So it was crucial that our priorities were where they needed to be.”

And, yes, sometimes they learned lessons the hard way. “We have not always gotten it right,” said Elder Sikahema. 

But they kept moving forward, kept learning and kept listening to the Spirit and the direction of wise Church leaders. “I have learned to better balance my time,” he said. “I have learned that family comes first. That is what is most important.”

Now as he continues transitioning to another defining chapter in his life, Elder Sikahema marvels at the way the Lord continues to qualify those He calls. As with all other Latter-day Saints, serving in the Church is offering him growth opportunities.

“Ministering has always come easy to me because I’m a people person; I love people and I love to engage people,” he said. “But the administering aspects of my callings are something that I’ve had to learn. I didn’t have a profession or career that prepared me in that way.

“But I’ve received the best training in the world from my local leaders and general leaders of the Church.”

Even prior to her husband’s recent calling, Sister Sikahema frequently found herself speaking in front of fellow Latter-day Saints eager to find stability and balance in their own lives.

“We have allowed the Spirit to guide us, and we will continue to do that,” she said. “This work is all about the Lord, and we are simply asked to be instruments to help build the Kingdom. We just hope to be worthy of what the Lord expects of us.”

Wherever in the world the couple is sent in the coming years, “our work will be to help families stay on the covenant path in the great gathering of Israel,” Elder Sikahema added. “We look forward to that with great anticipation … and we will do our best.”

Biographical information

Family: Born in Nuku’alofa, Tonga, to Sione and Ruby Sikahema. He married Keala Heder in the Mesa Arizona Temple on July 21, 1984. They have four children.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in broadcasting and communication from Brigham Young University, 2002.

Employment: Played professional football for the Arizona Cardinals, Green Bay Packers and Philadelphia Eagles. Worked as a sports and news anchor for NBC10 Philadelphia for almost three decades.

Church service: Full-time missionary in the South Dakota Rapid City Mission (1982-1983), ward Young Men president, bishop, regional public affairs director, counselor in stake presidency, stake president, counselor in a mission presidency, Area Seventy.