It’s a hot, humid, painful day in a string of similar excruciating days that mark the relationship Chris Culliver and Dave Puloka have forged the past couple of months.
Culliver used to be a finely tuned NFL cornerback, one of the best at what he did. But he’s not that on this day because multiple ligaments in his right knee were torn last November and the leg and maybe some muscles and definitely his conditioning aren’t quite back to form yet.
So Culliver and Puloka are working to make everything right. They are pushing and pulling and jumping and running and sweating and hurting.
There are no crowds watching the men toil.
There is no media spotlight.
This day is not about gratification. This day is about grinding. And wondering if that knee will ever be right.
Oh, yes, this day is also about vomiting. Because that’s what Culliver, the Dolphins’ big hope at cornerback in the coming weeks, is doing now.
Puloka, the team’s head strength and conditioning coach, has put Culliver through a rigorous testing regimen on a stationary bike and the athlete has gotten through it. But his breakfast has not.
“It was supposed to be a lighter day,” Culliver said last week, recalling the day that now seems long ago. “So you kind of go in thinking, ‘Just take it easy,’ but there are no light day. He’s giving me what we got to get into to get my body right and I ended up throwing up out there.
“That was about attacking the day. But I hated him that day. Because, like I said, he told me it was a light day … And I’m hurting and I’m looking at coach Dave and thinking, ‘I thought this was supposed to be an easy day?’
“It’s all laughs and giggles now but not when it was happening.”
When the Dolphins signed Culliver on August 9 they knew he’d been cleared by renown surgeon Dr. Robert Andrews to resume physical activity. But that didn’t mean Culliver was ready resume performance activities.
There’s a wide gap between being able to walk and being able to play in the NFL. So team management handed the cornerback over to Puloka to bridge the divide. There’s a colloquialism for such an arrangement:
And this one had potential for fireworks. Culliver on the field is about attitude and swag and playing as if angry. Puloka, a former college defensive end who has a Master’s degree in exercise physiology, is by no means a demure guy, having spent the past nine years helping, forcing, willing Dolphins players to recover from their injuries.
Add to this mix the pressure of the Dolphins needing Culliver to recover as quickly as possible because their need at cornerback is acute, and you have a relationship under pressure.
And that’s exactly where this one began, with Puloka telling Culliver they’d work five and six days a week and on some of those days the player would hate the coach.
“It has to start from the first day when we sat down and met each other, we have to realize this is a long journey,” Puloka said. “I think he thought, ‘I’ll work with you for a couple of weeks and I’ll be back and playing.’ Then it became clear to him once we started doing the assessments that, ‘I have a ways to go.’
“Right up front, I told him, ‘I’m committed to this journey. But I need you to be as well.’ I put it on the table and told him, “There’s going to be times you’re not going to like me very much. But it’s my job to keep pushing you to make sure we get to a point where you can get out there…and this is going to be hard.’ “
Based on Puloka’s description of some of the work Culliver has done since August -- a description too detailed for this space -- the physical work was indeed difficult for a world-class athlete, much less a person on the street.
And with that work came swelling, and soreness, and managing the physical and mental toll of working through an uncertain recovery from a major knee injury.
Yet through that all, this happened:
“We’ve become tight because we’ve been working together every day,” Culliver said. “He knows me as a person, as a man, as a guy. I see coach Dave all day and it’s been a brotherly bond, working together, trying to build something good.
“It’s always hard to get back from any injury. You got to keep your head down and keep plugging, keep chugging. That’s what coach Dave and me pretty much been doing. There’s been hard days and there have been days that were easier. He always keeps my head in it and keeps me level-headed and on the right path.”
It is Puloka’s goal to make Culliver ready to play football. Last week the work reached a significant milestone when the player began practicing for the first time. But nothing says either man has to like the work.
Or each other.
But then Puloka talks about Culliver’s Philadelphia blue collar work ethic and the way he carries himself with glowing praise, and it’s obvious these men are, well, boys.
“I love that swagger that he has,” Puloka said. “He’s going to bring that to the rest of the group and he already has. And other guys are excited about getting him back. So that’s really neat.”
You might say Culliver would wear his attitude on his sleeve during some workouts because he’d wear a shirt with a lion on the sleeves on days Puloka promised tough work ahead.
“It’s just being lionhearted out there,” Culliver said. “You want to get your guys and do what coach Dave said, ‘Bring an intensity to the game.’ So I came ready with the right attitude. I’ve talked to some of our players and hopefully we’re spreading it around and then giving it back against the opponent soon.
“As Dolphins we don’t want to take nothing from anybody…It’s about no let-up and, you know, leave everything on the field. That’s kind of what that is. It’s about being strong and being a lion out there. Not just myself, but my whole team.”
Culliver’s lion heart nature was of little help before Puloka improved his conditioning. That isn’t an issue now which is another reason he’s been able to begin practicing.
“We trained hard. We trained well,” Culliver said. “I’m in shape. I run out there confident now getting my repetitions. Got my helmet for the first time. I’m just getting comfortable and getting a good feel out there.
“It’s the first time 21 other guys are around my knee and I’m moving around with live souls. It’s feeling good out there. I’m happy.”
This is a success story -- at least so far. Culliver, back to a performance level, will get increasing attention when he gets in games again. But he understands he reached that level through much hard, hidden work with Puloka.
And for that, the million-dollar athlete, thanks the strength coach.
“Every day, now that I think about it,” Puloka said. “He’ll say, ‘I appreciate you coach Dave.’ He’s one of the best workers on our team. So it’s good to see. It’s been a pleasure to work with him.”