Sikahema was heavily recruited by Hawaii, Arizona and Colorado. Leaving Tonga with his family at the age of 7, he grew up in Mesa, Arizona, and grew up a fan of nearby Arizona State University.
Largely ignored by Sun Devil coaches, Sikahema ended up a Cougar after visiting BYU and speaking with LaVell Edwards. “I really liked Coach Edwards when I came here for a visit,” Sikahema told a reporter at the time.
Sikahema averaged 8.6 yards on 44 returns and finished fourth in the WAC in punt returns his sophomore season in 1981. In 1982, Sikahema left for an LDS mission to South Dakota, returning prior to BYU’s national championship season in 1984. Sikahema played as if he never missed a beat. He was named Honorable Mention All-WAC, was ranked seventh nationally in kick-off returns, and become BYU’s fourth leading rusher.
Sikahema’s success in college skyrocketed Polynesians into the football limelight among Islanders and it continued when he was named a two-time NFL Pro-bowler in 1986 and 1987.
Sam Lutui, currently a Southern Utah University graduate assistant and offensive line coach, said “Tongans cheer for Tongans regardless of where they are at. Like in the 80’s when BYU was really getting known in football. Vai Sikahema was really the first Tongan to hit the scene back home. Everybody knew his name, and every Tongan, whether you were Catholic, Methodist, or Seventh Day Adventist cheered for him even though he was playing at BYU.”
Such was the case with Heimuli, who would join Sikahema at BYU two years later from 1983-86, averaging 4.5 yards per carry as a Cougar.
As a 5-11, 216-pound “mean machine,” Heimuli signed with BYU in 1983. As a standout rugby player who, for the first 13 years of his life had never seen a football, starred in two years of high school football at Kahuku High, Heimuli surprised many he announced his intent to sign with BYU rather than hometown favorite, University of Hawaii.
Having been recruited by Utah, Hawaii and Arizona State, Heimuli wasn’t all that familiar with BYU. It wasn’t until he attended a BYU game in 1980 at Aloha Stadium to cheer 5-9 running back Sikahema. The rest, as they say, is history.
Rushing for 441 yards with an average of 4.1 yards per carry as a true freshman in 1999, Naufahu Tahi explains the early impact this Tongan duel had on him growing up.
“I heard about them because they went to a Church school,” said Tahi. “I liked watching them because they were really good back in the 80s. I like watching football and thought it was cool that the Church had a football team, so I always had my heart set on BYU. I think for us Polys, when we see any Poly anywhere, we hope they do well. It’s just a positive point for our people.”
The Polynesian connection to BYU slowed down during the 90s as LDS Polynesians started to venture out to other programs across the country. The same cultural and family that brought Polynesians to BYU began to work against the Cougars.
Current defensive tackle Manaia Brown, a Samoan, noted, “The word was (BYU) coaches made unfulfilled promises to parents, so once you get that with one family, the word gets around.”
Tahi added, “Well, Lavell and Norm Chow still had Polynesians they were trying to get, but I think, from then on, it just kind of went down. I mean, there are more Polynesians here now than when I was a freshman.”
Still, there were standout Polynesians who ventured to BYU during the mid-90s. Along with twin Tongan brother John, the 6-0, 250-pound Stan Raas made his way to Idaho from Tonga. The Raas brothers signed with the Cougars from Ricks College and played in 1993-94.
“I guess football was just one of those things I was talented at and went to school up at Ricks (now BYU Idaho). I was fortunate enough to get a scholarship at BYU. LaVell Edwards himself recruited me. He is one of a kind. He’s one of the greatest guys and is like a father,” Stan Raas said.
Ethnic composition aside, Raas commented there are more important benefits at BYU than just football. “BYU is only going to make you a better person. They have a good athletic program to start with and you’re going to learn something that you won’t be able to learn at any other institution. It’s unbeatable. With all the Polynesians at BYU, you feel right at home. I still follow BYU. I still bleed blue.”
With a new coaching staff under Gary Crowton that includes former BYU defensive standout Steve Kaufusi, the only Polynesian coach, they are committed to renewing ties and old connections utilized by previous coaches Chris Apostol and Norm Chow. BYU is once again reasserting itself on the national stage as THE place for top LDS Polynesian recruits.
“We (Polynesians) are finding more success here now. It’s a different program now than when I was here my freshman year. There’s a lot of kids growing up now that want to play for BYU. It’s a good school and it’s a really good football program that competes,” according to Tahi.
“I think we are going to be getting more Polynesians coming to this school in the future,” Tahi continued.
At the time he played for national champion contender Nebraska in 2001, Manaia Brown said there were six other Polynesians with him. Now only one remains.
“Nebraska was good and it was fun,” said Brown, “but it was a long way from home, family and friends. I’m more comfortable here at BYU because I don’t have to explain to anyone that I’m not Hawaiian or Mexican or a big Indian. Everyone knows about the different Polynesians here. Plus, we’ve got a big Polynesian community here at this school with members and non-members.”
The numbers of Polynesians attending BYU and the familiar church setting was also influential non-LDS Polynesians like Shaun Nua.
“It makes a big difference,” said Nua. “I like being around people who understand me and know how I am. There’s no other place but here that’s like that. I think it’s the Church culture being the same as the Poly culture here. LDS people have so much loyalty, just like the Polynesian people. They always stick together.”
Recruited by Arizona State and USC, Nua earned All-American honors at Eastern Arizona Junior College, further elaborated on his experiences as a non-LDS player at BYU.
“My experience over here is awesome. I’m around good people, man. LDS people are good people. There’s no pressure; just the missionaries who come every day. They knock on the door and I say, “Hey, I gotta go to work.” It‘s not a bad thing and I don’t feel any pressure. I think Gabe Reid and those guys sent them,” Nua said with a chuckle. “I love it at BYU with all the Polys. I just love it. I don’t think I was meant to go anywhere else.”
Former linebacker Raas concurred with Nua: “Come to BYU. They don’t pressure you to join the Church. They don’t make you change who you are, but you will be a better person by the time you leave – especially with the people and the atmosphere. Because Polynesians are predominantly Christian, BYU fits in already with the culture.”
On August 28, 1889, Hawaiian Saints came by the hundreds to a section of land in Skull Valley Ranch in Tooele County, Utah, with the purpose of settling a town (named after Hawaii missionary, Joseph Fielding Smith) called Iosepa, to help build the Salt Lake Temple. Today, thousands upon thousands of Polynesians from across the South Pacific have once again migrated to Utah. The 2000 census for Polynesians showed that Utah has the fourth largest Polynesian population in the United States with thousands more continuously moving from California and Hawaii.
BYU’s Polynesian pipeline was effectively resurrected again at Kahuku High when Aaron Francisco, BYU’s All-American candidate at safety, signed with the Cougars over Hawaii and several PAC-10 schools.
With more than 20 percent of BYU’s roster comprised of Polynesian athletes, Utah is the closest mainland school with 18 Polynesians on its roster. By comparison, the PAC-10 comes closest of any other conference in their recruitment of Polynesians. Washington leads with the PAC with 7; Arizona 5; Oregon 5; USC 4; UCLA 3; and Arizona State 2.
More important than the numbers, it is the quality of Polynesian athletes BYU is getting that is turning heads. They are much more selective and can afford to be as their recruiting of higher-caliber non-Polynesian players also improves. As many as five Polynesians will be offered scholarships this year, but recruiting competition for them is more intense from national football powers. The Cougars successful recruitment of Ofa Mohetau from Euless, Texas, sent strong signals and a powerful message that BYU has re-emerged as THE major player for the best Polynesian LDS recruits nationally.
The most important area BYU has significantly upgraded in helping these Polynesian athletes since Crowton assumed the reins of the football program is in academic support. They have instituted a more aggressive with higher levels of accountability by coaches to ensure all student athletes, including Polynesians, receive all the academic support they need to remain eligible.
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