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Monday, May 07, 2007

Bengals' Samoa pipeline

Bengals' Samoa pipeline
3 from island now on roster

Imagine the Bengals taking a player from Greater Cincinnati three years in a row in the NFL draft. Imagine those players growing up on the West Side together, going to neighboring schools - think Elder vs. Oak Hills - but always having a friendship that has now been renewed through professional football.

Replace Greater Cincinnati in that scenario with a South Pacific island and that's exactly what the Bengals have done.

When the Bengals selected Oregon defensive lineman Matt Toeaina in the sixth round of last weekend's draft it marked the third consecutive year they had taken a player hailing from Pago Pago, American Samoa. Toeaina (pronounced toe-EE-nuh) follows last year's selection of defensive tackle Domata Peko in the fourth round and the drafting of Jonathan Fanene in the seventh round in 2005.

"It's good to have someone who is a friend, someone you've known for a long time," said defensive line coach Jay Hayes. "I think that will lend itself to keeping them focused. They can talk to each other. There's no question on the field they're going to be able to talk to each other and say things to each other that people on the other side won't be able to understand because they can talk to each other in Samoan."

Hayes is part of a similarly tight relationship on the Bengals coaching staff. His brother Jonathan coaches the tight ends and the two were childhood friends of head coach Marvin Lewis in McDonald, Pa.

American Samoa totals 123.7 square miles, or roughly the size of the District of Columbia.

"To be honest, it does make me more comfortable," said Fanene. "I'm used to being around different races but seeing the same nationality around you and having your friends from back home, it makes me happy to work with them."

Fanene attended Tafuna High School. Peko went to Samoana High School, the same high school Toeaina attended after he spent his freshman year at Tafuna.

Toeaina spent this past weekend acclimating himself to Cincinnati and the Bengals during the team's rookie mini-camp. He picked up some advice from Peko and Fanene before arriving.

"They told me not to forget to have fun and play the game," said Toeaina, who weighed in at 311 pounds and stands 6 feet 2. "They said they'd take care of me when I get here so I'm counting on them to do that."

Peko enjoyed a good rookie season in 2006 in which he finished with 49 tackles, 2½ sacks and one forced fumble while playing in a reserve capacity behind starters Sam Adams and John Thornton. The Bengals like Fanene's potential - he tackled Steelers running back Willie Parker for a 4-yard loss on his first play from scrimmage as a rookie - but a hamstring injury kept him on the sideline until the final four games last season.

Part of the reason the Bengals were willing to allow Shaun Smith to sign with Cleveland as a restricted free agent - the Bengals chose not to match Cleveland's four-year deal worth $9 million - was their belief in Fanene. Smith was on the inactive roster for the final three games last season while the Bengals began playing Fanene more in the defensive line rotation.

"Last year was last year. It's over," said Fanene. "They saw that I still have that potential and I can play. I don't know about Shaun's situation but I believe I can play and I can be here if I want to and work at it. If they didn't like me they would have let me go long ago."

Toeaina is physically more comparable to Peko than Fanene in his stocky build. His calves bear a striking resemblance to tree trunks.

"He weighed 311 the other day but he can bend and when he gets down he uses that leverage and he's tough to move. He's got a little bit of quickness to him," said defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan. "He's a fun kid to coach. He really is. He's a fun kid. He enjoys the game, he flies around. He's not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, he's got a long way to go, but he's a bright kid, he understands, he's good in the classroom, he's good in his individual drills and he takes it to the field for team."

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