By Kelly O’Linn
Playing football at a junior college once carried a stigma, but with about 100 players being drafted to the NFL from junior colleges around the country since 2006, that stigma has been overcome.
With NFL players like Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton playing ball at Butte-Glenn and Blinn (Texas) College before transferring to a university, recruiters are more willing to recruit JC kids than ever before.
There are several former Cougars that have made their way to the NFL. One is Domata Peko, starting defensive tackle for the Cincinnati Bengals.
Coming off a season as one of the leading interior tacklers in the NFL, Peko came into the 2013 season as a team leader with one goal in mind: the postseason.
In 2008, with two years still remaining on his original contract, Peko signed an extension with the Bengals through the 2014 season worth $30.3 million with $8.5 million guaranteed.
Since 2008, the Bengals have been a Top 10 ranked defense and continue to make big plays with Peko in the middle. With an opportunity opening up this year, Peko has also been seeing increasing time on the offensive side of the ball as a fullback. With Peko’s versatility on both sides of the ball, the former Cougar continues to make strides in the NFL.
NFL prospects were once looked down upon if they played at a junior college instead of playing their entire career at a four-year NCAA institution. “The stigma is that when a player leaves high school and goes to a community college first, that there’s something wrong with them,” said Chuck Lyon, athletic director and former head coach of Peko at COC.
“The stigma is maybe they’re not big enough, maybe they’re not strong enough, maybe they don’t have the discipline to handle the Division 1 program right out of high school, and a lot of them are just flat out not true.”
Peko was big, fast, strong and he played mean, all of which made him a stand out player.
As COC continues to work hard to produce top-notch junior college athletes, Peko is just one from a group of former Cougars that made it to the NFL. The list of players, former and current, is in the double digits. Some of the notable players include: JJ Arrington (Arizona Cardinals), Jonathan Fanene (Bengals), Jason Pierre-Paul (New York Giants), Mychal Rivera (Oakland Raiders) and Isaac Sopoaga (New England Patriots).
Peko was born in Los Angeles and started playing football in the third grade. After moving to Samoa at a young age, Peko played various sports, mainly rugby and basketball. Before his senior year, Peko decided to put the other sports aside and play football.
After a strong year in Samoa and no offers from a four-year institution, Peko moved to California to attend COC. With friend and future NFL teammate Jonathan Fenene attending COC the two years prior, COC was not a hard choice to make. “We had some Samoans on the team at that time and we had a coach that is from a Samoan background, there really was no recruitment process, he just kind of showed up,” said Lyon.
“Domata came in as a weak, 230 pound lineman and left as a very strong, 295 pound athlete who could run like a linebacker. We knew he would be as dominant at the next level as he was at our level when we played for a state title his sophomore year,” said Robert dos Remedios, head strength and conditioning coach at COC.
While at COC, Peko was an All-American and was selected as one of the nation’s Top 50 junior college players. He recorded 62 tackles as a sophomore and led the Cougars to an 11-1 record. Peko finished the 2003 season earning first-team All-Western State Conference honors and was selected as Western State Conference Northern Division Player of the Year.
Peko was a two-year starter at COC before transferring to Michigan State. In 23 games at Michigan State, Peko recorded 67 tackles and earned All-Big Ten Conference honorable mention.
The Bengals selected Peko in the fourth round of the 2006 draft and with hard work, Peko has become one of the better nose tackles in the NFL.
“I know the conditioning coaches who train him in the off-seasons and they tell me he is one of the hardest working pros they work with. Never misses a session and is always trying to better himself for the next season,” said dos Remedios.