For Domata Peko, the road to the Super Bowl runs through Calabasas.
The Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle, signed a month ago by the NFL’s hottest team, was an assistant coach this season at Calabasas High as he waited to see where his pro career would take him next.
“I loved my time there,” said the 6-foot-3, 325-pound Peko, 35, whose first name is pronounced DOME-atah. “Helped me stay in shape and keep my tools sharpened, and to stay ready.”
There’s more to it than that. His son, Domata Jr., is a freshman defensive end at Calabasas, and the elder Peko was one of several former NFL players on the coaching staff, along with head coach Chris Claiborne, and assistants Curtis Conway, Travis Hannah and Eric King.
“It’s awesome, man, to see him in that situation because you know the personal side of him,” said Claiborne, a former USC linebacker who spent eight years in the NFL. “[The Ravens] look like they’re having so much fun. It’s one thing to be back in the league. It’s another to be on a team that’s having a good time and competing at a high level.”
Peko, signed Nov. 12, is part of a constant three-man rotation at defensive tackle, and has started two of his three games. It’s a plum assignment for a 13-year veteran who never won a playoff game in 11 seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals and two with the Denver Broncos.
The 10-2 Ravens have won eight in a row — including victories over mighty New England, San Francisco, and the Rams — and are led by electrifying quarterback Lamar Jackson, the league’s leading MVP candidate.
“I’ve gotten a whole bunch of texts and Instagram messages from my little players at Calabasas saying, ‘Good job, Coach. We see you out there.’ It’s been really cool.”
Peko is easy to spot on the field, with his spray of dark hair spilling out the back of his helmet and covering the name across his shoulders. When he was younger, learning the game on the dirt fields of Pago Pago in American Samoa, he had a different distinguishing characteristic.
“I played for the Samoana [High] Sharks, and the whole team was blue,” he said. “Everybody had a blue helmet. I had a red one because it was the only helmet that would fit me. We used slippers as thigh pads and knee pads. It was bad, man. But it really helped me to toughen up and appreciate all the good stuff we have here in the U.S. Just helped me connect to my culture and my roots, know where I came from, and I just appreciate what I have now.”
Quarterback Carson Palmer, who played with him in Cincinnati, counts Peko among his all-time favorite teammates, someone who was always upbeat and grateful to be there.
“I had no idea he was coaching at Calabasas, and the first thing I thought when I heard that was, ‘Oh, man, my kids would love to play for that guy,’ ” Palmer said. “He’s happy and positive and excited, never yelling. I can just imagine him coaching high school kids and being excited for the third-string kid to get in the game and make a tackle.
“He’s one of those guys who’s never really forgotten where he’s come from, and how hard it was to get where he’s gotten.”
Palmer remembers Peko being transfixed by fellow Samoan Troy Polamalu, a star safety at USC then with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“When [Peko] first got to Cincinnati, he heard that Troy and I were roommates and buddies from college,” Palmer said. “He idolized Troy. Troy was it, coming from Samoa, defensive player of the year, Super Bowl, all the accolades.
“Domata wore me out with questions about Troy. I, of course, embellished some of the answers, made him a little bit of a superhero. Domata bit on everything. That was football to him.”
Although they played for AFC North rivals, Polamalu said he long respected Peko’s game.
“I wish we had played together,” Polamalu said. “He plays with so much passion and joy out there, and it’s not done in a way that’s self-centered or ego-driven. He doesn’t demean the opponent. I always appreciated that about his game.”
At Calabasas, where the Coyotes finished 9-3 and lost in the first round of the Division 1 playoffs, Peko worked with both the defensive and offensive linemen, teaching them hand fighting and proper footwork. He sat in the stands and scouted opponents, took meticulous notes, did whatever was asked of him.
“At the end, when it was getting close to the time he signed, he started conditioning with the offensive linemen,” Calabasas quarterback Jaden Casey said. “You could see his physicality. It’s crazy to see a big guy move like that. You don’t see that in high school. And just the mental part of the game, how much he knows about the Xs and O’s.”
Apparently, Peko’s son picked up some of that, even though his high school career is just getting started.
“He’s just a freshman, but physically and mentally he has the potential,” said offensive coordinator Conway, a former USC and NFL receiver. “He’s smart. The first thing that jumped out at me is he was on the scout team defense for varsity, and we were running some plays that our varsity dudes couldn’t pick up. We were just gashing them. And all of a sudden, [Peko’s] right there in the right spot all the time.”
The elder Peko was quick to note that even his 5-year-old son, Samson, helped keep him on his toes.
“He runs around like crazy,” Peko said. “That’s what helps me chase down these running backs is running after my son.”
Likewise, everyone on that Calabasas team is now following Peko step by step.
Said Casey: “We’re all Ravens fans now.”