The most famous person in the room Thursday night at College of the Canyons’ Athletic Hall of Fame induction ceremony might also have been the most thankful to be there.
COC alumnus and longtime Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Domata Peko, not an inductee, climbed the dais at the Hyatt Regency Valencia and delivered a poignant speech about growing up in American Samoa and the role the Santa Clarita Valley community college played in his life.
“My name is Domata Peko, and I’m grateful to be here,” said Peko, who gave one of three “alumni student-athlete experience” speeches at the ceremony, which honored the 2004 national championship football team and four individuals.
2017 COC College of the Canyons Hall of fame Celebration! Great to catch up with old teammates… https://t.co/OT3oVs046D
— Domata Peko (@DomataPeko) January 27, 2017
Peko, the youngest of nine children, was born in Whittier. When he was in fifth grade, his father, a pastor, moved the family to American Samoa where Peko didn’t play football until his senior year of high school.
He instead filled his time with activities like bodyboarding.
“Chilling out, really,” he said.
Then Joe Salave’a, a Tennessee Titan at the time and an American Samoa native, spoke at Peko’s high school.
Afterward, Peko approached the 6-foot-3, 337 pound defensive lineman and said, “One day, I’m going to make it to the NFL just like you.”
“Really?” Salave’a replied.
“I hope so,” Peko said.
Still Peko contemplated life as a fish cleaner or a bus driver. That’s until former College of the Canyons defensive coordinator Leon Criner called.
“I thank God for that phone call. It changed my life,” Peko said to loud applause from a crowd of around 265 people.
“Without him calling me, I wouldn’t be where I am right now,” Peko said of Criner, who died in 2014.
— Mike Kane (@mickirish44) January 27, 2017
Peko, of course, went on to be named a Junior College All-American, an All-State first-teamer and the Western State Conference Player of the Year at COC in 2003 before transferring to Michigan State.
The Bengals drafted him in the fourth round of the NFL Draft in 2006, and he has been with the team ever since, making 37 total tackles this past season.
“Do your best, and God will do the rest,” Peko said.
Peko opened Thursday’s speech by thanking his coach at COC, Chuck Lyon – who’s now the school’s athletic director – and everyone at the school “down to the lowest person.”
“People in the background, people not up here, do a lot of things that make everything work,” Peko said.
During the ceremony, Lyon reminded Peko of another reason to be thankful for the school.
The athletic director asked Peko’s wife, Anna, to stand up.
The couple met at COC. Everyone cheered.