“Thank goodness for little return people,” Big Red head coach Gene Stallings said after the Cardinals defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 21-17 to close out the 1986 season.
The “little return people” Stallings was referring to was 5 foot 8 inch Vai Sikahema who had just become the fifth player in NFL history to return two punts for TDs in one game.
The Cardinals and Buccaneers were arguably the two worst teams in the NFL in 1986 and they certainly lived up to that billing on this cold Sunday afternoon at Busch Stadium. The teams combined for 15 punts, 6 turnovers, and 500 total yards.
The Cardinals struggled on offense, turning the ball over three times and missing three easy field goals. They converted on only one of 10 third down plays and entered Tampa territory nine times, coming away with only one offensive touchdown.
The Bucs fared no better. Quarterback Steve Young completed only 13 of 34 passes and threw two interceptions. The punter, Frank Garcia averaged just 32 yards on nine punts, one of which went just one yard.
“It’s obvious some people weren’t thinking about playing a football game,” Big Red tackle Luis Sharpe told the St. Louis Post Dispatch.
The Bucs took a 7-0 first quarter lead on a Young to Bobby Howard 1-yard TD reception which was aided by a long pass interference penalty against Cardinals cornerback Lionel Washington.
Then Sikahema took over. Just over a minute into the second quarter, Sikahema fielded a Garcia punt at his own 31 yard line, started right, got a huge block from Ron Wolfley, and broke four tackles on his way to the end zone. Sikahema bowed to the fans after his TD tied the game at 7-7.
“It’s my tradition,” Sikahema said after the game. “It’s a little hot dog in me. I used to do that at BYU and the fans went wild.”
The rookie would strike again with just 3:27 remaining in the first half. Sikahema caught the ball at the Cards 40 yard line, received another big block from Wolfley, and bolted up the middle toward the goal line. Although it appeared his knee came down at the one yard line, referee Jerry Seeman called it a touchdown. Sikahema was planning to bow in the end zone again, but couldn’t.
“I was mobbed by my teammates, so I didn’t have a chance,” Sikahema told the St. Louis Post Dispatch. “I waited and did it on the sideline.”
Sikahema had just been voted to the NFC Pro Bowl squad and was actually mocked by Tampa rookie linebacker Kevin Murphy after bobbling a first quarter kickoff and fumbling after taking a big hit.
“He shouted, ‘Pro Bowl, Pro Bowl,'” Sikahema said after the game. “It motivated me. I just told myself if I had a chance to pop one on them I would.”
“If there was any doubt about Vai going, those doubts no longer exist,” Ron Wolfley told the St. Louis Post Dispatch.
Sikahema’s impact on the game wasn’t finished. The Cardinals only offensive touchdown came just a couple of minutes later and it came as a result of a Garcia punt that was almost blocked by Leonard Smith. The kick only went one yard. The Cards took over at the Tampa 21 yard line and Neil Lomax would score five plays later.
The thought of Sikahema returning a 3rd punt for a touchdown clearly had an effect on that play as well.
Sikahema returned four punts for 145 yards, breaking the Cardinals single-game record of 143 set by Chuck Latourette against the Saints in 1968.
He also broke Stump Mitchell’s club record for punt return yards in a season with 522 and most punt returns in a season with 43. Sikahema would top those marks in 1987 earning a second trip to the Pro Bowl and being named to the All-Pro team.
Meanwhile the 1986 Cardinals struggled to a 4-11-1 record with two of their victories coming against the 2-14 Bucs. It was the team’s worst performance since moving to St. Louis in 1960. Unfortunately, they would only play one more season at Busch Stadium before moving to Phoenix in 1988.