When John Elway thought his team “got a little bit soft” during this ongoing losing streak, he was not talking about Domata Peko.
This is an American Samoan native warrior, the manliest of men who takes on two men every play as the Denver Broncos’ noseguard.
To watch Peko is to watch a prop in a rugby scrum, or a two-on-one sumo match. It is an extreme exercise of behemoth push and pull, tug and grab.
“It’s fun. That’s what I’ve been doing for years now, over a decade of playing noseguard in the league,’’ Peko said in a sitdown interview this week with 9NEWS. “It’s just my niche. I found something that I’m good at. And that’s one of my strengths is being right there in the middle and stopping the run and holding up blockers and trying to make plays on the inside there.“I love it. You don’t get too much praise or glory. That’s what my coach told me, it’s a very selfless job. You have to be selfless there and let other people make plays. Once in a while, you’ll see the big fella get a one-on-one and make a play.’’
Peko spent 11 seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals, grinding, grunting and eating up blockers, then was let go to free agency where he signed a two-year, $7.5 million contract with the Broncos in March.
“He’s probably the most positive teammate that I’ve ever been around,’’ said Von Miller, the Broncos’ biggest star. “No matter what, he’s always, ‘How’s it going boss? Good morning. We’re going to get this one today.’
“You look at him and you’re like, ‘Man, are you 24 or 23 years old?’ He’s one of the oldest guys in the locker room and still has that energy about him on the practice field and off the practice field. Hot, cold or raining, loss or win, he’s the same guy. He’s great. He’s definitely been a shining star in the locker room for us.”
Peko, who will turn 33 in a few days, will make his 122nd consecutive NFL start – a regular-season streak that began with the 2010 opener -- against his former Bengals on Sunday. No other active NFL defensive linemen can boast such a run of durability.
“Had a good run there,’’ Peko said. “Thankful for (Bengals owner) Mr. Brown and coach Lewis for giving me a chance, giving me an opportunity. They were the first ones giving me a shot in ’06, a long time ago. But yeah had a great time in Cincinnati. Loved the organization, loved the city. The only thing I’m missing there the most is all my friends and relationships that I built throughout the decade there. We talk once in a while, but I’m excited, man, now that I’m a Bronco. I love it here in Denver. Broncos Country has been treating me well and it’s a great organization.’’
Before he became a Bronco, Peko was mostly known as the Bengals’ big guy with the long hair. The flowing mane is part of the American Samoan heritage and has become a big part of Peko’s identity.
“Yeah, I’ve been growing my hair for a long time,’’ he said. “I looked up to a dude, back in the day (Pittsburgh Steelers’ safety Troy) Polamalu. He was another person from American Samoan, from the Islands. That’s just part of our culture. We’re known for being big dudes, long hair and warriors and that’s what I try to play like.’’
Peko was credited as the primary reason for the Broncos’ improved run defense through the first four games of the season, but like everything else on the team, Denver hasn’t been quite as stout since the bye week.
The Broncos had been ranked No. 1 against the run, but after getting gouged by the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles for a combined 345 rushing yards, they now rank No. 6.
It’s the question all of Broncoland has been asking: What happened to this team?
“These past couple games have been kind of tough,’’ Peko said. “In a blink of an eye it seems like we’re down 14 points. What the heck, first quarter we’re down so quick? It’s hard to do that against the good teams.We had a tough run there with K.C., the Eagles and then the Patriots, those are three of the top offenses in the game so it’s going to be a battle."
“But looking forward from here. It’s Cincinnati week. We got a chance for us to go out and get a ‘W’ to try and get back on track. We’ve just got to take it one game at a time. But this week is huge for us. Every week is big from here on out. We’ve got to win ‘em. We’ve got to win ‘em all and it starts with this week.’’