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From Samoa to Cincy: Peko's Long, Strange Journey

Jason SingerContributor IMay 29, 2009

CINCINNATI - AUGUST 18:  Domata Peko #94 of the Cincinnati Bengals looks on during a preseason NFL game against the New Orleans Saints on August 18, 2007 at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Saints defeated the Bengals 27-19. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Domata Peko was born and raised in American Samoa, a sun-soaked island in the rugby-crazed South Pacific.

As the son of a preacher, Peko—a devout Christian—always envisioned joining the ministry.

In fact, the 6'3", 325-pound linebacker didn't step onto a football field until his senior year of high school.

So the only thing longer than the 7,300-mile journey from Samoa to Cincinnati were the odds of Peko making it to the NFL.

Yet here he is, entering his fourth year in the league, a starter and leader on an ever-improving Bengals defense.

The humble Samoan attributes his success to his family and faith.

"My dad is the pastor, so that's how I was brought up," Peko said. "I have to be thankful to God because that's how I got everything."

It's been a strange journey for Peko, who started his collegiate career at the College of the Canyons, a community college in Southern California.

After two dominating years there—where he was named a Junior College All-American—Michigan State recruited him.

While there Peko, who grew up on an island of 64,000 people, routinely played conference games in front of 100,000 screaming fans.

He admits to initially feeling flustered.

"In Samoa, you never have that many people watching you play," said Peko. "I (got) nervous at first, but after your first hit on the field you feel right back at home."

Even a bigger adjustment than the crowd was the weather. In his hometown of Pago Pago—the capital of American Samoa—three straight days of 75-degree weather is considered a cold front.

That's quite a difference from the snowbelt weather of East Lansing.

Peko called his first winter "freezing" and "unbearable."

"It was the first time I had ever seen snow," he recalled. "I even made a snow angel and a snow man."

His senior season at Michigan State, Peko earned a starting spot on the Spartans' talented defense. After garnering an All-Big Ten Conference Honorable Mention, the Bengals drafted Peko in the fourth round of the 2006 NFL Draft.

Every year since, the hard-working defensive tackle has improved his individual numbers, racking up a career-high 67 tackles in 2008. The Bengals' defense also vastly improved last year, jumping from 27th to 12th overall under first-year coordinator Mike Zimmer.

Peko said with the addition of rookie linebacker Rey Maualuga to the roster—a fellow Samoan—he thinks the Bengals' defense can now match the vaunted defense of Cincinnati's division rivals.

"You look at Baltimore's linebackers, and they've got Ray Lewis. Everyone knows Pittsburgh's linebackers. Cleveland's got their linebackers," Peko said. "Now we've got a big-name 'backer in the middle [Maualuga] to go with Keith Rivers. He's the next Junior Seau. Our defense took a huge step [on draft day]."

Peko even believes the Bengals can compete for a Super Bowl in 2009.

He said he's willing to nurture the team's young defenders like Maualuga to make that happen.

"A lot of young guys come up to me and tell me, 'Man, what year is this for you? Is this like year six? Year five?' And I say, 'No, it's my third year,''' he said. "They're just looking up to me now. It's time to step up as a leader on this defense.

"I'm ready to be a premier defensive tackle in this league...I'm ready to play for our fans. I want to get a ring."

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