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Sunday, August 08, 2010

Former COC linemen Peko and Fanene: Along the same line

It is worth noting when a community college has two athletes in the NFL at the same time.

Two on the same team is attention-grabbing.

But two potentially start on the same side of the same defensive line?

That’s unheard of — except in Cincinnati.

For the fifth straight season, former College of the Canyons stars Domata Peko and Jonathan Fanene will play side-by-side for the Cincinnati Bengals, who opened the preseason Sunday with a 16-7 loss to the Dallas Cowboys in the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio.

Fanene had two tackles in the game, including a sack. Peko didn’t record a tackle.

“Who would ever think that two guys that grew up as close as those two did with each other, and went to the same junior college, would end up on the same (NFL) team?” says Cincinnati defensive line coach Jay Hayes.

“They are both doing very, very well,” he adds. “They are core players for us on our D-line.”

The 6-foot-4-inch, 292-pound Fanene played at COC in 2000 and 2001, while the 6-foot-3-inch, 320-pound Peko suited up for the Cougars in 2002 and 2003.

The two behemoths first met in high school after Peko moved from California to the small island of American Samoa, where Fanene was born.

Little did they know just how much their futures would intertwine.

“It’s really cool to have someone from the same place you’re from, who cares about you and understands the difficulties (you face),” Peko says. “Someone you can talk to when you miss home.”

Hayes praises their bond and the family nature that has been fostered within the defensive unit, as well as their play up front.

Their football skills began to take shape under former COC head coach Chuck Lyon and defensive line coach Leon Criner.

That especially rings true for Peko, who was named a Junior College All-American, an All-State first-teamer, the Western State Conference Player of the Year and a WSC first-teamer — all in 2003.

“Oh man, COC was so much fun,” he says. “It was a big part of my journey to get to the NFL. We had a good coach, who took really good care of me. That’s where I really learned how to play D-line.”

Peko evolved into a dominant community college defensive lineman and led the team to a Southern California championship and an appearance in the state championship game in 2002. One year later, the Cougars won the Western State Conference Bowl.

“He was more of a raw-talent guy than Jonathan was,” Lyon says. “He was a more true technique, inside tackle. He was a big kid, strong kid and had a little mean streak in him. He definitely had that from the beginning. He was a very quiet young man and didn’t say much. But he didn’t have to say much with his size.”

In 2001, Fanene helped COC beat Saddleback College 35-32 in the WSC Bowl at Cougar Stadium. It was the first-ever bowl victory in the program’s history.

“It was a jump start for me,” Fanene says of his time at COC. “That team right there was a family team. We had a picnic every Friday. We could bring our friends around and we could talk about football and the things we needed to get better and prepare for games on Saturday. The program was perfect, right on time for me and some of the teammates.”

Fanene had 65 tackles and 14 sacks in his final year with the Cougars before signing with Utah.

“He was really undersized, but he probably had the biggest motor I’ve ever coached,” Lyon says of Fanene. “He was just so darn quick and relentless in his pursuit of the ball that people couldn’t block him.”

Peko transferred to Michigan State for the 2004 season with his brother, Suki.

Two years later, Domata was drafted by the Bengals in the fourth round of the 2006 NFL Draft.

“Domata has come in and as soon as he got here, was able to be productive and was able to play against players that were supposed to be some of the best guys in the league,” Hayes says. “He was able to handle them and really dominate them. ... He’s really been one of those guys that gets better and better all the time. As we get better, you’ll see Domata playing in the Pro Bowl and things like that.”

Fanene, meanwhile, was selected in the seventh round by Cincinnati in 2005 after two years under head coach Urban Meyer and a 2004 victory in the Fiesta Bowl.

“He is the first player off the bench for us,” Hayes says. “He can play all the positions and has played all the positions with us in his career. He really is considered a starter for us. Jon will play maybe 40 plays a game.”

In 2009, Fanene had 36 total tackles, six sacks and a 45-yard interception return for a touchdown in week 13 against Detroit.

Peko, voted a team captain, missed five games with a torn meniscus and finished with 27 total tackles.

Cincinnati’s defense allowed the fourth-fewest yards per game (301.4) in the NFL and the sixth-fewest points (18.2) last season.

Peko says the team’s goals include improving on both marks.

The duo’s biggest impact, however, may come in the form of mentorship.

And on a team that has battled character issues in recent years, their influence is invaluable, Hayes says.

Among the players they have taken under their wing is former USC linebacker Rey Maualuga.

“We are leaders on the team and we need to continue to help the young guys coming in and show them what it is to be an NFL player,” Fanene says. “A lot of guys that come in think it is all about them on the first day and about fast cars and everything else. But your job is the first priority.”

Adds Peko: “We’re not always very vocal leaders. By action and doing things on the field is how we lead.”

The mentality has taken both men a long way.

They’ve found passion in the sport they love.

And as they continue grinding away at football’s highest level, the best thing they may have found might be each other.

“They are like brothers,” Hayes says. “They teach us Samoan words and things like that. It’s always been a great situation to expand your horizons being around those guys. They are really sharp guys and are doing a lot of good things in the community. Both are very involved doing community service and are involved in their churches. They are good husbands and fathers and they love their work and what they do.”

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