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Back in the middle


Domata Peko

Domata Peko never thought he'd have this much time on his hands.

"I didn't make any plans for the offseason to tell you the truth," Peko admits. "I thought we were going to go farther for sure. I wasn't ready to stop playing."

As chairman of April 28's March of Dimes Walk, he is standing in the middle of a party in the middle of a Paul Brown Stadium club lounge in the middle of February and he is thinking about the division of labor.

"Our division is tough," he says after watching another Super Bowl title cut through the AFC North. "We're right there in the AFC North. We're on our way. We're a couple of players away. It seems like we could be (in the Super Bowl) doing that, too. I'm really excited to see what we do this offseason. We get some draft picks and we're on our way. We've got a bright future."

This is how the leaders feel. Empty. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who didn't plan on going to the Pro Bowl, either, said the same thing when he got picked for Hawaii a few weeks back.

"The next step we have to get is we have to win a playoff game. That's what I'm trying to figure out," Whitworth said.

As usual, Peko and Whitworth, the team's de facto captains heading into their eighth seasons, are on the same wavelength. Peko says the NFL postseason was "sickening."

"I didn't watch any of the playoff games," he says. "But we're a team that's going the right way. I'm happy to be a part of it."

The solution for the perpetually upbeat Peko, coming off a season he was again among the NFL's leading interior tacklers ( had him fourth for defensive tackles), comes in mid-March like it always does. Along with Pro Bowl tag-team partner Geno Atkins and several other local Bengals, they'll attend Ignition Sports to begin their workouts a month before the Bengals open their offseason program and try to break their own personal records in the weight room. Peko has shaved back his flowing beard so much that wife Anna is telling him he looks like he did when he arrived from Michigan State in 2006.

"My body feels great; I feel that young," says Peko, who is still only 28. "I won't cut the beard now. I'll keep it growing."

Anna is at the March of Dimes Walk kickoff party, too, and that is what Cincinnati has come to expect because the Pekos are a package deal. She has been helping him out since college, when she was running the desk at a gym and would look the other way when Domata and his friends snuck in for free to lift weights and play basketball.

Now Domata Jr., eight, and Joseph, five, are running around like they are trying to make Darrin Simmons's special teams. As they throw footballs at the cardboard cutout of running back Brian Leonard, Anna is checking out the flier for the March of Dimes Walk.

A Cincinnati tradition on the riverfront, the walk is set for April 28 for 5.5 miles, but Anna is reading up on the shorter distances that are available for children. She comes from the San Fernando Valley and he comes from American Samoa, but Anna and Domata might as well be native Cincinnatians because the fit is so good.

"Domata is going to sponsor me and a lot of our friends that are coming out to walk," Anna says. "This is a lot different than California, but we love it here. It's a blessing."

It's a two-way street because Peko is not only a team leader and stalwart against the run, his flowing hair has become as recognizable as a Queen City attraction. A buck from each burger sold at Johnny Rockets on The Banks goes to the Pekos' foundation run by Domata, Anna and Domata's brother, former Colts guard Tupe Peko, and last year they sent all proceeds to the United Way.

Last Christmas, along with their annual shop with families from St. Vincent de Paul, the Pekos also took a group from Fort Mitchell, Ky.'s DCCH Center for Children and Families for a shop. When they heard St. Monica's rec center in Lincoln Heights didn't have a game room, they reached out.

"Our focus is on kids, the younger generation," Anna says. "If we won't have them, what are we going to have?"

The Pekos have found a good match in the March of Dimes. There are enough babies and toddlers screeching around the party to show their age-old commitment to preventing birth defects. But it's becomes so much more than that down through the years as Jason Edwards says.

"They started out fighting polio, then they went to birth defects, and now they've added the fight against premature births," Edwards says.

Edwards, 37, has been in the middle of the fight ever since he can remember growing up in Colerain Township with parents Linda and Tom.

Confined to a wheelchair with Spina Bifida, Jason, along with his parents, have been involved ever since he was named a March of Dimes local ambassador from 1979-81.* *And that included throwing out a first pitch to Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench before a 1980 Reds game.

Since then he became the first student with Spina Bifida to mainstream in his district and graduated from Northwest High School in 1993 before getting his degree from Cincinnati State. Jason is moving into his 15th year as an accountant for Enterprise and regularly attends Spina Bifida's national conventions. He's no longer the little kid that tossed to Bench from the top of the Reds dugout or the teenager that got his first Bengals season tickets in 1989 and cheered on his favorite, nose tackle Tim Krumrie.

Edwards arrived at the party right from work in shirt and tie and talked about watching closely from PBS's Section 134, where he's missed just two games in the last 24 seasons. His family runs a checkpoint during the walk and he's had a chance to meet the Bengals down through the years who have served as chairmen. But none probably made more of an impression than the one Frostee Rucker made last year.

Rucker, the defensive end who signed on as chair before he signed with Cleveland in free agency, still showed up as a Brown. While Edwards remembered some people booing him and the sign with his name, Rucker was gracious and so were most of the walkers.

"Frostee was great; nice guy," Edwards says. "It's a business."

At the party, Edwards made sure he got an autograph and picture with another nose tackle he admires a few years after Krumrie.

"He's awesome. He's great on the run," Edwards says of Peko. "He's always in the play."

Both of them are ready to be in the middle of a big spring.

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