September 25, 2010|By Mike Berardino, Sun Sentinel
DAVIE — They had no idea of their connection. Not a single clue.
Not before the NFL Draft, when the Miami Dolphins were preparing to take Koa Misi in the second round as Jason Taylor's successor.
Not during rookie minicamp, when the Utah product showed up and began in earnest the process of reshaping his body to outside linebacker standards in a 3-4 NFL defense.
It was only after Misi returned from a celebratory dinner back in Utah with some distant relatives he'd barely even met that Dave Puloka connected the dots.
Puloka, in his third season as the Dolphins' assistant strength and conditioning coach, was working the rookie hard in the weight room during OTA's when Misi casually mentioned they were related.
"My family said they know you," Misi said.
"Oh, really," replied Puloka, also of Tongan extraction. "Who's your family?"
As soon as Misi said the name "Lavulo," Puloka knew. He checked out this unknown branch of the family tree with his cousin Lisa Lavulo, who confirmed it from Los Angeles.
"This is a couple of generations, so the exact connection, we're not entirely sure," Puloka says. "It's a little confusing."
Sione Misi, Koa's father, says they are basically third cousins.
As best they can establish, the connection dates back to Melenaite Misi, Koa's 67-year-old paternal grandmother, and Latu Puloka, the coach's late grandfather.
The Lavulo branch traces back to Ha'apai, one of the smaller islands in the South Pacific chain of 148 tiny land masses – "depending on high tide/low tide," Puloka says —that make up Tonga.
If there are 100,000 residents of Tonga as a whole, there might be no more than 5,000 on Ha'apai. And now two men with roots on that island are working for the same NFL team.
What are the odds?
"It's been weird to find that out," says Misi, who grew up in Santa Rosa, Calif., while Puloka, 31, spent part of his childhood on the island.
Not that it buys Misi any quarter when it comes to conditioning.
"I don't give him any special treatment or anything," Puloka says. "If anything I might be harder on him."
Their connection does lead to some zingers in between squats.
"I joke with him a little bit," says Puloka, who has worked under head strength coach Evan Marcus the past six years. "I'll say, 'If you slack off, I might call up your grandmother and tell on you.' "
Keeping weight on has been the issue for Misi, who was drafted at 244 pounds and has since packed on about 10 pounds of muscle with Puloka's help.
"He's good," Misi says. "Both the strength coaches will push you to your limits and make sure you're doing the right thing. I talk to Dave about eating right."
Seeing Misi now, Puloka can recognize the same family traits that helped him play defensive end at Holy Cross and attend Bengals training camp as an undrafted free agent in 2001.
"Certainly he's a high-motor guy," Puloka says. "His work ethic is tremendous. I'd like to think that runs in the family."
Misi isn't even the only Tongan on the Dolphins. Offensive guard Ray Feinga, on the practice squad, has Tongan roots as well. Fellow outside linebacker Ikaika Alama-Francis is Hawaiian, and nose tackle Paul Soliai is Samoan.
"We've got a Polynesian contingent here," Puloka says. "I kind of talk up the Tongans a little bit. I told Ray he's got some standards to live up to."
Misi, with a sack and a fumble recovery for a touchdown through his first two games, is certainly meeting those standards.
His third cousin couldn't be more proud. Same for the whole Lavulo wing of the family Misi never knew.
"You have to understand the cultural aspects of it," Puloka says. "Even in Tonga, there's no distinction between brother and cousin. It's one and the same. You take care of everybody."
Especially the rookies.
"You hear about the expression, 'You're raised by the town' or 'It takes a village,' well, it really does,." Puloka says. "It's a huge community. If you're related, whether you're second cousin, third cousin, it really doesn't matter. In that culture you're considered brother, sister, very close sibling."
Ha'apai can hardly wait for Sunday's kickoff.