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Head and shoulders above effort

From left: Domata Peko, Jonathan Fanene, American Samoa governor Togiola Tulafono, and Rey Maualuga. (Local 12 photo)

Simon Mageo, who coached Domata Peko at Samoana High School and is now the principal, didn't see it coming until Tuesday morning when the trucks backed up to the school and he was presented with 50 helmets and 50 pairs of shoulder pads.

Peko did that five more times Tuesday and Wednesday at the other five high schools in Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa. In a football version of the Marshall Plan for his tiny island nation where two-thirds of the 65,000 people are below poverty level, according to 60 Minutes, Peko and fellow Bengals teammates Jon Fanene and Rey Maualuga are providing investments as well as inspiration this week during their trip back home.

There are 700 pairs of cleats coming courtesy of Maualuga and his Under Armour stash. Divide that by six and that's how much each school is getting.

"Our helmets are from 2005," said Mageo, via phone from the high school Thursday night, near class dismissal American Samoa time.

"In a lot of them, you can put your thumb on the cushions and because of the wear and tear and the humidity, it's pretty solid. Your thumb doesn't go very far down in the cushion. It's for the grace of God that there haven't been a lot more serious concussions. Some of them have to wear a couple of bandannas for padding."

The shoulder pads are almost as old as Peko himself. "From the '90s," Mageo said, and Peko, 25, swears he saw some from '91, 11 years before his senior season. Age had gnawed them enough to leave frayed laces and broken latches.

"We have to bandage them up," Mageo said. "We have to get other material and fabric to replace the padding that has worn out."

No more, courtesy of Peko's new foundation, "Giving Our Kids a Brighter Future." Also ticketed for the kids of Pago Pago from Cincinnati are 150 helmets and shoulder pads for the youth leagues from the Fort Thomas, Ky., Junior League.

"It was gratifying to see the looks on their faces," said Peko this week as he rode to an event at Fanene's high school of Tafuna. "It is something they need and they're going to get a lot of use out of them. They really need it."

Mageo's gym was packed Tuesday morning for the assembly. The visit of Peko and Maualuga had been so well publicized throughout the island that the principal thought all of his 1,185 students were there, as well as all 98 staff members.

"Teachers, coaches, cooks, everybody," Mageo said. "And a lot of parents of the student-athletes."

When they saw the gift, he admitted, "We were speechless."

But he didn't want Peko and Maualuga to be, particularly Maualuga. Maualuga, who visited the island with his native parents when he was three, is back for the first time and thought Peko should speak for both of them. Plus, Mageo said, Maualuga seemed uncomfortable with the recent news that hit the newspapers of his DUI arrest.

"Rey was hesitant. He felt Domata should just speak," Mageo said. "But I told him, 'With your credentials, don't think I'm going to let you come 8,000 miles and not to speak to us.' It's like he was born and bred here. That's how we see him. And we saw him grow up. Literally because we saw him play on TV all the time when he was in college and then when he went to the Bengals."

A big roar greeted Maualuga when he was introduced and Mageo said he didn't shrink away from his problem and basically told the crowd, "There are people who love and respect you and there are people that look up to you and if you disappoint them you have to learn from your mistakes and never quit."

Maualuga grew up in a military family (born in Oklahoma City, moved to Hawaii, then to California) and he told them there were times he didn't understand the harshness or the tough love, "but he felt it helped him because it made him more disciplined," Mageo said.

Maualuga also talked about some of the poverty he faced growing up and joined with Peko telling the students, "If I can make it, anybody can make it, you can make it."

"That was a very important message," Mageo said. "Domata talked about working hard, obeying the parents and teachers and to never quit."

Mageo served as Peko's senior class counselor and his memories are pretty distinct. Quiet. If it not for his size you wouldn't know that Peko played football. He didn't hang out with the so-called jocks, but with the kids that you didn't always notice.

"It's great to look around and just be around Samoans," said Peko, back for the first time since his 2002 graduation. "The kids are loving it and having a great time and I'm really enjoying it, too."

Peko was still riding high from Monday's event with Togiola Tulafono, the governor of American Samoa. The trio presented him with a check for $40,000 for victims of last year's tsunami raised at a Bengals tailgating bash.

"Very exciting," Peko said. "You have Obama. He's our Obama. He thanked us for giving back and helping rebuild the economy."

Maualuga is also having an emotional trip. His late father's brother greeted him at the airport, and he is seeing his own 21-year-old brother for the first time since his father's 2006 funeral.

"My brother is a little shy, so we're getting to know each other again and when I saw my uncle it reminded me of my dad," Maualuga said. "I knew my cousins by name and pictures, but that's it. The kids are saying 'Come on Rey, take us shopping,' so I'm getting ready to go spoil them."

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