Before Bengals nose tackle Domata Peko signed his two-year extension Thursday, he had already spent the offseason extending himself like he usually does on and off the field as the defense's de facto captain.
While taking a break from his rigorous training regimen at Ignition gym in Blue Ash on the outer edges of Cincinnati, Peko watched a replay of one of the Bengals' Super Bowls and saw James Brown standing on the sidelines next to head coach Sam Wyche exhorting the action with a towel.
At that point Peko realized how long the inimitable "J.B.," has been around his beloved Bengals and Peko, as he has been known to do, had T-Shirts promptly made for all his teammates with a photo of J.B. on the front along with his signature expression, "Got to have it." On the back Peko directed they put the cheer J.B. leads the Bengals in the locker room after every win: "Who-Dey. Who-Dey think going to beat them Bengals?"
Thankfully the T-Shirts are on a lighter note. You can still see the orange and black stocking caps hanging in some of the lockers honoring two teammates that Peko ordered when Chris Henry and Thomas Howard died.
"J.B.'s been around the Bengals forever," Peko said.
Now suddenly it's time to talk about Peko in those legendary terms. He won't turn 30 until the season is almost over (Nov. 27) and with 123 games already played and his contract now set through 2016, Peko would have 171 games played if he keeps his 64-start streak intact that is second among all NFL defensive tackles and tops on the Bengals. Only two-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Tim Krumrie, a franchise icon, has played more games for a Bengals defensive line than that and Peko, born the year after Krumrie's rookie year, has quietly been bringing some of those same types of legendary qualities.
No numbers were available, but his $5.5 million average salary probably didn't get hurt. The 6-3, 323-pound Peko, who lined up last year 16 times as fullback in short-yardage and goal-line situations, couldn't resist.
"It's got to be the biggest deal ever for a fullback," he said.
(Seriously, here's also a guy that has been literally in the middle of a top seven NFL defense in four of the last five years. With Peko roaming on first and second down, they are 10th, 12th, and fifth against the run the last three seasons.)
"That's the kind of guy you're talking about. If people don't realize it, they better start to realize it," Hayes said of Peko's place in Bengals history. "All I know is what I get from his peers and guys coaching in the league. When I go around the country (scouting for the draft) and one of the first things guys tell me is, 'Peko's great. He's always there."
Peko is not only one of the most popular players in and outside of the locker room in Bengals history, he's also one of the most underrate greats. He's come close to being a Pro Bowl alternate and this year he's coming off what Hayes says is the best of his eight seasons. Peko may have to agree.
"The good Lord has given me strength. I really think I'm getting better. I just had the most sacks I ever had," he said of his three in '13. "I've been playing the run like a mother and playing it tough. That's what I do. My job is to keep the guys off our backers and make my plays, too."
Hayes has had him and The Dean, Robert Geathers, ever since they arrived. Geathers, a fourth-rounder in 2004, and Peko, a fourth-rounder in 2006, are lessons in compensatory picks. They weren't compensatory picks, but that is what you can get in the fourth round.
"The great thing about Peko is that he works on what he perceives are his weaknesses," Hayes said. "He's been working in the weight getting strong in there instead of just being naturally strong.
"Domata likes to be kind of a finesse player at times. I told him and you could see it in some of the plays he made on some of his sacks if he just keeps his pads down and push and use that lower body strength, he can push the pocket and be disruptive that way. He was as disruptive as he's ever been in the pass rush this year."
Peko says it's pretty simple. The harder he works in the offseason, the better the year he has. So instead of back home in California or Samoa, he's in his eighth winter at Ignition working under Clif Marshall, the strength guru trained in the Bengals weight room of Chip Morton. Just the other day, Marshall snapped a photo of another career-high as Peko dead-lifted 650 pounds and did three reps.
"I feel as good as I ever have, as strong as I ever felt," Peko said. "I think one of the reasons is because I wasn't hurt last year. The last couple of seasons before that I had some nagging injuries, but I was 100 percent this year and I'm looking to do that again."
Peko's prowess on the field is only half the deal, of course. Just the other day Peko sent a mass text to guys like linebacker Rey Maualuga to remind everyone who was in town to join him in a workout. Peko is why Maualuga and two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins migrate to Ignition when Morton isn't open for business.
If head coach Marvin Lewis calls running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis "E.F. Hutton," because everyone listens when he talks, then Peko is The Pied Piper. His house in Northern Kentucky has a revolving door of teammates and he ran the two-week mini-camp defense at Ignition during the 2011 lockout.
"I love it here. I love the fans. I love the city. I love the organization," Peko said. "It's so great that the Brown family has blessed me with this opportunity to be here three more years. The Bengal Way is the only way I know and I didn't want to play anywhere else. We just need a few more plays to get over the hump and this year I think we can."
Peko's proud third-ranked defense took a few shots in the offseason with the departures of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to run the Vikings and Michael Johnson to play right end for Tampa Bay. But after six years of playing with Zimmer's chip, he feels another one growing and is confident former linebackers coach Paul Guenther can make the jump.
"Coach Zimmer is probably the best defensive coach I've ever been around," Peko said. "But we have our core group of guys and those are the guys that are out there playing the game. Everyone is going to be saying, 'Zimmer's gone. Let's see what this defense can do.' It's going to give us motivation. Just to continue to play well and continue to be a top five defense. We can't slack off and we won't with Paulie. I think our leadership on this defense and on this team isn't going to slack off. We're ready to play for Paulie. These guys look up to him and respect him."
The transition is going to be a lot easier with Peko around for at least three more years with guys looking up and respecting him. They did it even as the ink was still smudged on the contract.
"Can you believe,' asked Marshall, "what Domata is doing on the day he signed his extension?"
It turns out on Thursday night Marshall led a contingent of Bengals into Over-the-Rhine to feed the homeless and hand out blankets for his work with Focus Ministry. He had planned on Maualuga, DeQuin Evans, and Emmanuel Lamur.
But Peko on the day he became the NFL's highest-paid fullback?
"He said he'll be there," wondered Marshall, not without some awe.