His son was a year old when Domata Peko’s 325-pound frame and 600-watt smile rolled in to Paul Brown Stadium for the first time. The kid is 14 now, and Peko is a Bronco. Time flies.
“I was there so long, (my son) was a ball boy for our team,” the veteran Denver defensive tackle said of Cincinnati, his stomping grounds for more than a decade, and the site of a win-or-else meeting Sunday between the 5-6 Bengals and 5-6 Broncos. “It’s really crazy. It’s going to be fun. I can’t wait to show Cincinnati what they lost, what they’re missing. Very excited to go out there and prove a point.”
The point? You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone, baby. Despite 11 seasons and anchoring a defense that reached the playoffs six times, twice as many appearances as the 20 years before Peko arrived in Cincinnati, the Bengals let him walk. The Broncos signed the former Michigan State star to a two-year, $7.5-million deal in March 2017, and the big lug got on his horse and rode west.
“(Cincinnati) gave me a lowball offer, and the Broncos gave me a really good offer,” Peko recalled. “And I had to make the best decision for my family. But definitely, it’s going to be fun going back there and coming back home to Cincy and playing in front of the crowd there.”
No. 94 still keeps a home in Northern Kentucky, along with enough mental snapshots to fill up two Instagram accounts.
“They’ll probably boo me a little bit,” Peko said with a knowing grin. “I’m going to keep doing my same routine when I go out there. Run out of the tunnel with fire, ready to go. And show the city what they’re missing.”
The Queen City got a little taste last November 19, when the 34-year-old defender racked up six tackles, two for losses, against his old squad at Mile High in a 20-17 Broncos loss, then the club’s sixth straight defeat.
Sunday’s meeting sets up with something of a different backdrop, as the Broncos hit the banks of the Ohio River riding a two-game win streak over strong Chargers and Steelers squads. The hosts, meanwhile, will be trotting out a backup — albeit a crazy-fast one — at quarterback in Jeff Driskel, a cat Peko remembers well from the signal-caller’s days on the Bengals practice squad in 2016.
“I said in the (defensive line) meeting, I was like, ‘Man, I remember on the practice squad, that fool was running around. He looked like Michael Vick. He runs like a 4.5 (40-yard dash),’” the big Broncos defender said.
“He’s a pretty quick guy, so we’ve definitely got to keep him contained as part of our plan … he has the threat of running, you’ve got to treat him like a Russell Wilson, that type of quarterback. The key to the game (is tailback) Joe Mixon, man — we’ve got to get after Mixon. He’s a good running back.”
With Peko at its heart, the Broncos defense allowed only 75 team rushing yards to Pittsburgh last weekend and just 95 in Los Angeles the week before that.
“(Peko) just shows you how to be a pro, every day,” Broncos defensive end Shelby Harris said. “Because you don’t have any excuse when you’re tired and everything, and this 50-year-old man is over here running around and out-running you to the ball.”
The old dude has played on 369 out of a possible 749 defensive snaps this season (49.3 percent), primarily on first and second downs. Not bad for a 50-year-old man.
“That’s the thing about Domata, he’s such a competitor,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. “He’s just great for the football team and he goes out there and does his thing on Sundays.”
He’ll be remembered in southern Ohio for the things he did on the other days, too — from launching The Domata Peko Foundation to feeding the homeless who had sought shelter underneath local bridges.
“Not everyone really goes under there, man,” said Peko, who plans to wear a quarterback towel with the No. 15 emblazoned on it as a tribute to his old Cincinnati teammate, the late Chris Henry. “You have to have a big heart for the people and a big heart for the city. And I thank God that he placed that into my heart, just to show love to others, show respect to others. And it’s going to be cool to go back. It’s going to be weird, because some people are going to hate on me for being back there. But I know a lot of fans are going to be happy to see me, so I’m excited for that.”