About five football players, Misi among them, were in the Montgomery weight room, horsing around. As what happens sometimes when teenage testosterone rubs up against another kid who has a strong case of it, things got a little rough.
“Koa sent four kids flying out of the weight room, one right after another, fast, like a pinwheel was turning, spitting them out,” said Jason Franci, Montgomery’s head coach.
With ease, by the way. Franci didn’t hear any grunting from Misi, only from the teammates who landed.
“With ease”, now that’s the phrase I found to be used most commonly about Misi by his ex-teammates and ex-coaches at Montgomery. “With ease.” It wasn’t just what Misi did that was superior, it was how he did it. He did it with ease.
“After a game,” said Todd Vehmeyer, Montgomery’s defensive coordinator, “I’m standing with my back to the locker room door. And remember, I weigh 260 pounds. I’m not small. Koa comes up behind me, picks me up and gives me a bear hug that knocks the wind out of me. Koa? He’s not even breathing hard. You probably heard of someone being ‘country strong’. Well, Koa is island strong.”
Misi, of Tongan descent, created memories of his strength not by walking around and flexing his biceps. To the contrary, he was, still is, modest by nature. Oh yes, those memories came naturally.
“His dad, Sione, was in the tree business,” said Frank Scalercio, Montgomery’s assistant coach, “and one day I was out with Koa and Sione helping them. The back of the end of the truck got stuck in the mud. Koa and Sione lifted up the back end of the truck so I could slide a piece of wood underneath for traction. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Are you kidding me?’”
The truly gifted athlete — this is true of any sport but especially in football — forms the appearance of being twice as big, twice as fast, twice as strong. His very presence creates that enlarged bubble of awe around him.
It happened on the football fields of Sonoma County. The opposition was aware of Misi. Offenses constantly tracked him when he played defensive end. There would be times when a running back or a receiver or a quarterback would see Misi coming.
“And they would freeze, like a deer in the headlights,” Scalercio said. “It might be only for a second but it would be a mistake. Koa won’t slow down. He would just go through you.”
The results would be predictable because the results would be painful.
“On two consecutive plays against Casa,” said Jeremy Avilla, then a Montgomery safety, “Koa knocked players out of the game. One had a broken arm and missed most of the season.”
Nearly every person I interviewed about Misi remembered at least one game in which a player had to leave after a Misi tackle. He did it not to cripple but just to answer that need he had inside him — to play hard and fast on every play. Misi was developing a legend of awe, borne not only of what he did on the field but what he did off it.
Franci has a wooden platform. It’s three-feet high, two-feet wide. At the beginning of each season Franci asks his players to jump on it. He wants to see athletic ability.
“Each season I have four of five players who can land on the platform,” Franci said. “Koa is the only player I ever coached who jumped OVER it.”
Jumping is an important skill not just for a basketball player. It reveals flexibility, or a lack of it.
“Koa’s dad had this monster truck, with its flatbed maybe four feet off the ground,” Scalercio said.
“We had to go somewhere one day and his dad said, ‘Koa, get in the back.’ Because the tailgate was so high, people hoisted themselves up. Koa? He jumped from a standing position and landed in the back. Like it was no big deal. Like he did it all the time. He looked like a gazelle. I mean it. And what I remember most, his landing was soft. I just shook my head. Couldn’t believe it.”
So he was a teenager, 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, island strong, a gazelle-type leaper, lover of contact. What else?
“Koa was so quick,” said Marcus Ezeff, a Montgomery teammate, now trying out with the New York Jets, “he’d catch people without them seeing him, and he’d cream them. He did it to this one kid at Casa and the kid just laid there the longest time. It was the kind of speed you see in college. I was always happy I never was on the opposite line of scrimmage.”
So what did Misi lack? Nothing.
“Koa reminded me a lot of Jerry Robinson,” Franci said of the ex-Cardinal Newman star who played 13 years in the NFL.
“Sure, yeah, we’d like to say the coaches made Koa a great player,” Vehmeyer said. “But that’s not true. Not with Koa. He was there already. And he was a great teammate.”
Misi never big-timed his high school buddies when he went to Utah or when the Dolphins drafted him last week. Fact is, he concealed his talent, his skills. He was, and is, the textbook definition of humble.
“That’s why when Koa was drafted,” Ezeff said, “it felt like I was drafted, too. We all root for Koa.”
Vehmeyer has a special rooting interest in Misi.
“I meet with my kids at the beginning of the year,” Vehmeyer said, “and I tell them, ‘You’re not going to play in the NFL but if by some chance you do, I want season tickets.’ I reminded Koa of that this week and all Koa said, ‘Coach, I don’t remember you saying that.’”
Vehmeyer laughed when he told the story. He doesn’t need the tickets. In fact, he could even say that Misi won’t show him anything in the NFL that he hasn’t seen already. Catch someone from behind like the guy was standing still? Drive through a ball carrier like he’s cotton candy? Run sideline-to-sideline like an obsessed border patrolman?
Yep, Vehmeyer’s been there. Seen that. Applauded. Gawked. Once, Koa Misi was a man among boys. Like Vehmeyer or Franci or Ezeff would say, you should have been there. A 225-pound blur of a hammer isn’t seen in these parts all that often.