By Scott Priestle, CNATI.com Posted November 25, 2009 4:00 PM ET
Domata Peko invited his longtime friend and teammate, Jonathan Fanene, and Fanene's family to join him for Thanksgiving dinner. The invitation soon spread to all of the Polynesian players on the roster, their families, and any other player without a place to go.
"The Peko household is open to everybody," Peko said with a smile.
That he and his wife are so willing to host is a sign of how seriously he takes his role as a captain and team leader.
That he and Fanene are still together -- from American Samoa to College of the Canyons to the bottom of the Bengals roster to the starting lineup of a first-place team -- is a sign of how seriously they take their jobs.
"They are great guys to coach, and I couldn't be happier with either of them," defensive line coach Jay Hayes said. "I feel fortunate to have them in my room."
Neither grew up playing football, but they took to the game quickly enough to earn Division I college scholarships and get drafted by the Bengals: Fanene in the seventh round in 2005, Peko in the fourth round a year later. Peko became a starter by his second season, earned a multi-million dollar raise prior to his third and was named captain for his fourth. Fanene finally cracked the starting lineup this season after an injury to Antwan Odom, and he is second on the team with five sacks.
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said Fanene has improved more since arriving in the NFL than any player he has seen.
"I would agree with Marvin," Fanene said. "I've been working hard since the off-season with coach Mike Zimmer, and he taught me a lot of good stuff -- not only me but the whole D-line."
Fanene said he has made particular improvement with his technique and his knowledge of the defense, and Hayes said he is in better shape. "Right now I feel comfortable," Fanene said.
Peko believes his lack of experience prior to the NFL has been an asset, for it made him a blank slate for Hayes and Zimmer.
"I didn't learn any bad techniques," he said. "I had no bad habits."
Peko said he did not play football until his senior year of high school, but he showed enough talent to continue his career the next year at College of the Canyons, a junior college in California where he was reunited with Fanene. The two knew each other while growing up in American Samoa, though they were not close friends at the time.
Peko played defensive line in junior college and at Michigan State. His breakout season came as a senior in 2005, when he emerged as a playmaking defensive tackle for the Spartans.
Fanene began playing football at age 14, first as a receiver and tight end. He moved to defense as a high school senior and played outside linebacker in junior college. He then spent two years at Utah, where he played defensive line.
The Bengals drafted him mostly on long-term potential, and he was active for only seven games in his first two NFL seasons.
"It took me almost a year to learn the defense," Fanene said. "It wasn't like college. There were just a lot of little things I wasn't prepared for."
Hayes agreed. He said Fanene was "green as grass when he got here," but gifted enough that the Bengals were willing to wait for his game to grow.
"The first time he ever got in a game, first play, he had a tackle for loss," Hayes said. "Pittsburgh game. Next play, he was all over Ben Roethlisberger. He's always been a disruptive player. He has that burst."
As Fanene learned how to watch film and play through pain, Hayes and the coaches found ways to get him on the field, including moving him from end to tackle on passing downs to take advantage of his pass-rush skills.
Peko was nearly as raw when he arrived in Cincinnati, but he was athletic enough and tough enough to fill a role as a rookie. He earned a starting job the next year.
Hayes credited each of them for their willingness to take instruction and work year-round.
"They always have been willing to do what you ask them and go the extra mile, work really hard in the off-season," Hayes said. "You could tell because of how they produce when the time comes. The one thing about both of them: I stress with them what they need to work on and they do it."
It is a point of pride for Peko, and perhaps the biggest reason why the gifted-but-green fourth-round pick has become a cornerstone of a rapidly improving defense."I've always been a hard worker. If I'm here at work, it's not time to play, it's time to work," he said. "I want to be remembered as a coachable guy. If my coach says there is something to work on, I'm going to work on it. I don't want to be, like, `Oh, I know what I'm doing.' That's the thing about Fanene, myself, a lot of these guys on this team, we're all coachable people and I think that's a big point."