NFL Films Presents MORE – The Untold Story of Vai Sikahema

Arizona Cardinals, NFL Films Presents, Philadelphia Eagles

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following story was the basis for the short film “Sole Brothers”, which premiered this week on Fox Sports 1’s NFL FILMS PRESENTS.  The piece will re-air as part of an episode titled BEST FOOT FORWARD on 12/29/18 at 3:30pm/ET on NFL Network.  You can also look for the film on NFL Films’ Social Media Channels.

By McKinley Haas

In 1986, 14-year old Barrett Brooks did not know his shoe size. He also didn’t know if he’d ever own his own brand name tennis shoes.

With the height of a potential NBA All-Star and the muscular depth of a young offensive tackle, Brooks loomed over all the teenage boys who would gather around Busch Stadium on game days. “I didn’t care about getting tickets to the game from players like all the other kids. I was just tagging along with my Uncle.” Brooks said.

One game day, Cardinals running back/kick returner Vai Sikahema was headed into the stadium. Noticing Brooks, he stopped and asked the young man why he never begged for free tickets like the rest of the kids.

But Sikahema quickly forgot his initial question to Brooks when he looked down at Brooks’ exposed feet that autumn morning. “His shoes looked more like flip-flops than tennis shoes when I first saw them,” Sikahema said. Sikahema could not help but notice the fourteen-year-old kid with six inches on him needed new footwear.

VAI SIKAHEMA played 8 seasons with the Cardinals, Packers, and Eagles. He was the NFC’s Pro Bowl Punt Retuner in both 1986 and ’87.

“His feet were clearly too big and rather than discard the shoes, he cut holes in them allowing him to get more wear from them,” Sikahema said. The open tops of Brooks’ tennis shoes gave his toes their needed wiggle room after his mother told him there wasn’t any money to buy a new pair.

As the first Tongan player to ever be drafted into the NFL, Sikahema knew what it was like to stand out. “I had done something similar as a boy myself so I had compassion for him,” Sikahema said, as he, too, had been the kid begging his mom for anything but K-Mart shoes to fit in at school.

Sikahema then invited Brooks to follow him into the Cardinals’ locker room. “Busch Stadium had three security check points,” Sikahema said, “I just told Barrett to stay at my side at each security check point.”

After bypassing security, Sikahema soon realized Brooks’ feet were a bit bigger than his own. “I turned to my teammate and fellow running back, Stump Mitchell, who wore 12’s, and asked him for a pair of his turf shoes.”

“When he put Mitchell’s shoes on me, I couldn’t remember the last time wearing shoes that actually fit me,” Brooks said. With his Kangaroo branded shoes on his feet and his old kicks in the trash, Brooks and Sikahema parted ways.

“Perhaps if we had social media then, that moment of me giving him a pair of shoes may have been tweeted, facebooked, instagrammed or snapchatted out and we would’ve friended each other and stayed in touch,” Sikahema said.

“I remember leaving that day and thinking to myself that Vai didn’t have to do that. He was a professional football player who took time out of a game day to help me, a kid,” Brooks said.

“After he gave me that pair of shoes, I knew I wanted to grow up and have a genuine heart like him.”

What Brooks did not want back then, however, was a career in pro football.

“The truth was, I hated football growing up.   In high school I used to fake asthma attacks so I wouldn’t have to stay for football practice,” Brooks said. “I just wanted to concentrate on basketball, but my mom made me play football to stay off the streets.”

Despite his lack of interest, colleges and universities across the nation wanted Brooks to come play football for them as an offensive tackle, due to his large stature and equally menacing body mass. “I saw football as a means to an end for me,” Brooks said.

He decided to stick with the sport so he could get a college education. “I chose Kansas State, because they told me I could come play for both the football and basketball team,” Brooks said. After being All-American at Kansas State, Brooks realized that his athletic abilities could turn into fiscal opportunities on a professional level and decided to stick with football post-graduation.

Following his senior year at Kansas State, Brooks was the second round pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1995 NFL Draft. As he entered the press room after being selected, Brooks noticed a familiar face among the media assembled to interview him and the other new Eagles. Without hesitating, Brooks made a beeline for a reporter holding an NBC Sports mic.

“Mr. Sikahema, Mr. Sikahema!,” Brooks said. “Do you remember me?”

“You’re the Eagles’ second round pick,” Sikahema said, confused by the draft pick’s over-friendly demeanor.

“The shoes man, the shoes!” Brooks said while stomping his feet with excitement. “You gave me my first pair of brand name shoes!”

Through welling tears, Sikahema realized this 325lb man was just an older and heavier version of the boy who he’d picked out of a crowd and given a pair of shoes.

“Once Barrett re-introduced himself to me I remembered him from St Louis. After all, I only brought one kid into the locker room before a game during my entire career,” Sikahema said.

Sikahema’s reply to grown-up Barrett Brooks was a hug. Cameras were snapping pictures of the sentimental moment between this new recruit and a sports broadcaster, the media still unaware of their exact connection. But as they pulled away from one another, Brooks smiled and said, “Now, I can afford my own pair of shoes!”

Since being reunited, Sikahema and Brooks have grown even closer. “To this day he is one of my best friends,” said Brooks, who after winning Super Bowl XL with the Pittsburgh Steelers and ending his 10-year NFL career, turned to his long-time mentor for guidance as he made the switch from playing football to reporting on it.

It was a topic Sikahema knew well. After retiring from the NFL, he had forged a successful career in sports broadcasting. Today, Sikahema is a morning news anchor for NBC in Philadelphia. On top of his professional career, Sikahema presides over nine Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints congregations as a priesthood official in the Mormon faith.

By now, Sikahema’s gifts to Brooks – who he says is “like one of my kids” – go well beyond that pair of shoes. Nearly thirty years after they met outside Busch Stadium, Sikahema has also given Brooks an extended family in the sports world, and an example of how to spread friendship.

BARRETT BROOKS capped his 11 year NFL career by winning a Super Bowl ring with the Steelers in 2005.

“Vai taught me to reach as you climb,” Brooks said. Now a broadcaster himself, Brooks has begun to help current players in the NFL as they wrap up their playing careers and seek further work in the sports media world.

“Helping others is not me being charitable, but it’s who I am,” Brooks said, “And Vai taught me that. He showed me that football players are more than football—we can do anything.”

To both Sikahema and Brooks, football is family. Though these two brothers never played with each other, they both continue to represent the same team: the NFL. Not every young boy will play football professionally, but all of us can learn from this story of selfless charity that inspires football fans everywhere to remember that much of the game of football is played off the field, behind closed doors, and without cameras watching.

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