|One of the few bright spots for BYU in the first half of the 1980 Holiday Bowl was Vai Sikahema returning a punt for a touchdown (Courtesy BYUphotos.com).|
He may be the most diminutive player on this list, but there was nothing small about Vai Sikahema's play on the football field and the impact he could have on games. He made his biggest impact as a return man breaking several school and NCAA records. Although never a full-time starter on offense, he made the most of the opportunities he did receive.
Before 1980, BYU had never had a player of Tongan descent on the roster. Head coach LaVell Edwards found Sikahema in Mesa, Arizona, after his family's long and arduous journey from Tonga. Sikahema made sure he wouldn't be the last. The first way he did that was through exceptional play on the field.
As a freshman, Sikahema joined a Cougar squad fresh off the best season in school history and a backfield loaded with upperclassmen who had paid their dues. Even as a return specialist, Sikahema's opportunities were few and far between. He returned just four punts and six kickoffs during the regular season, but he had a team high 25.2 yard average on kickoff returns and an impressive 6.3 yards per carry average the seven times he got to carry the ball.
However, Edwards was sage enough to use Sikahema on punt returns in the Holiday Bowl. Down 29-7 close to halftime, the Cougars' hopes for victory were on life support. Just then, Sikahema returned a SMU punt 83 yards for a touchdown to make it 29-13 at the half. Although that return didn't spark the miracle comeback, it helped make it possible.
Sikahema returned to the team in 1981. His role as a return man vastly expanded, and he saw more time in the backfield, as well. He made 11 of the team's 17 kickoff returns that season. He returned 44 punts, which was a new school record for most returns in a season (he would go on to break his record two more times). Sikahema's best all-around game that season came at UTEP. He carried the ball eight times for 87 yards and one touchdown. He returned five punts for 67 yards, and caught three passes for 27 yards.
Sikahema finished his sophomore season with the second most rushing yards of his Cougar career with 242. He, again, had an impressive yard per carry average over six yards (6.9).
After that year, Sikahema took a break to serve a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The next time he saw the field was 1984.
Sikahema resumed his role as a return man and reserve running back. It didn't take long for Sikahema to remind Cougar fans the damage he could do. In the second home game, he took a Tulsa punt 89 yards to the house following the game's opening drive. As an encore, he returned the second half kickoff 65 yards.
After the Tulsa game, opponents should have known to kick away from Sikahema. Wyoming suffered the consequences in the form of a 40-yard kickoff return. New Mexico got the Tulsa treatment: 47-yard punt return for a touchdown and 45-yard kickoff return. Utah was forced to surrender a 42-yard kickoff return, and Utah State saw Sikahema dance through its punt team for a 56-yard return.
Sikahema also got his most extensive playing time in the backfield against the Aggies. They couldn't stop him then, either. He gained 59 yards (team high) on just five carries and scored two touchdowns.
For the season, Sikahema led the nation in punt returns (51) and punt return yards (472).
Every other player, up to this point, on this list saw a drop off in production as a senior, for one reason or another, but not Sikahema. He had career highs in:
- rushing yards,
- rushing touchdowns,
- receiving yards,
- receiving touchdowns,
- punt returns, and
- average yards per kickoff return.
Later in the season in the New Mexico game, he tied the school record for most punt returns in a game (8), and he added a 48-yard punt return against UTEP to his list of accomplishments. Sikahema scored two touchdowns in a nasty snow storm to cap off BYU's 44-0 shutout of Utah State.
Sikahema's crown jewel of 1985, however, was the Air Force game.
Cynics of BYU football like to point out that most of BYU's big wins over highly ranked schools came against teams that didn't finish the season ranked. That was not the case against undefeated and number four ranked Air Force. The Cadets would finish the season ranked in the top 10, but they wouldn't escape Provo without defeat thanks to Sikahema.
Trailing 21-7 at halftime, Sikahema got BYU going in the second half with a 72-yard punt return for a touchdown. He also had a 45-yard kickoff return during the game. With the score tied 21-21 and less than six minutes left in the fourth quarter, Sikahema came up big, again. This time, he hauled in a Robbie Bosco pass and raced to the end zone for a 69-yard, game-winning touchdown.
Punt Return vs. Air Force
Editor's Note: Ignore the graphic that Sikahema set an NCAA record for put return TDs. Another BYU player Golden Richards was recognized as the NCAA record holder for punt return TDs in a season with four in 1971. Sikahema had three in his career.
Sikahema lived briefly in Hawaii as his family made their way to mainland America. BYU travelled to Hawaii for the final regular season game of Sikahema's college career. In that Polynesian paradise, Sikahema didn't leave anything in the tank.
He got BYU on the scoreboard with an 80-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter. He went on to lead the team with 12 receptions for 198 yards. In the second half, Sikahema helped put the game out of reach with a 29-yard touchdown run. It was part of his team leading 86 yards on 11 carries. He finished the game with 328 all-purpose yards (26 kickoff return, 18 punt return).
When all was said and done, Sikahema held six school records:
- Most punt returns in a game: 8 (tie)
- Most punt returns in a season: 54
- Most punt returns in a career: 153*
- Most combined returns in a career: 195*
- Most punt return yards in a career: 1,312
- Most all-purpose yards in a game: 328
His 3,688 career all-purpose yards were second in school history, at the time, just 55 yards behind Jeff Blanc.
Sikahema was drafted in the 10th round of the 1986 NFL Draft by the St. Louis Cardinals. He was the first Tongan to play in the NFL. While with the Cardinals, he made it to the Pro Bowl twice, and set a Pro Bowl record for most punt returns in a game (7). He was first-team All-Pro in 1987, and led the league in punt return yards in each of his first two seasons. In eight NFL seasons with three teams (Green Bay Packers, Philadelphia Eagles), Sikahema amassed over 8,000 return yards (4,933 kickoff, 3,169 punt) and returned four punts for touchdowns.
Top 10 Polynesian Players
10. Mekeli Ieremia, DT, 1974-77
9. Kurt Gouveia, LB, 1982-85
8. Reno Mahe, WR/RB, 1998, 2001-02
7. Glen Kozlowski, WR, 1981, 1983-85
6. Aaron Francisco, DB, 2001-04
5. Vai Sikahema, PR/KR/RB, 1980-81, 1984-85
4. Kai Nacua, FS, 2013-16
3. Lakei Heimuli, RB, 1983-86
2. Harvey Unga, RB, 2006-09
1. Kyle Van Noy, LB, 2010-13
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