PITTSFORD — Sean McDermott started his news conference Friday on a somber note.
The Buffalo Bills’ head coach spoke for the entire organization in wishing the best for defensive tackle Kyle Peko and his family. Peko announced on social media Thursday that his wife, Giuliana, was diagnosed last month with cancer – specifically stage 3 Hodgkin's lymphoma.
“It puts things in perspective in a hurry,” McDermott said. “This is important, what we do, no doubt about it, but at the end of the day, these guys all have lives outside of football and families to support.
“I wanted to say how appreciative I am of Kyle Peko coming to camp. We’re all human and we go through challenges, but the challenge Kyle and his family are facing is certainly a significant one. I want to let his family know that we are with them all the way."
Peko was excused from the first day of practice at St. John Fisher College, but was on the field with his teammates Friday — at his wife’s urging.
“This is how I support my family. This is the way I take care of her and my kids. To be honest, she's the one who told me to get back out here,” Peko said. “She told me not to miss, but as a husband and as a man, it's my obligation to be there for my family, and it's crazy that I'm here, but yeah, it's her. She wouldn't want it any other way.”
Peko, who turned 26 on Wednesday, met his wife through mutual friends when they were both students at Cerritos College in Norwalk, Calif. They’ve been married for about five years. The couple have two children, a son, Kai, and a daughter, Evangeline.
“She’s awesome,” Peko said of his wife. “Great mother — even better wife. She kicks my (expletive) into shape a lot.”
At first, Peko kept the news of his wife’s diagnosis private, saying it was “hard for me to accept or maybe talk about.” Once he did reach out to the team’s coaching staff and his teammates along the defensive line, the response was immediate.
“They reached out and said, 'Any way that they can help,’ ” he said. “Everyone is super supportive. Prayers, good vibes, positive energy. That's what we received, and I'm very appreciative.”
McDermott was particularly impressed with the physical condition Peko reported to training camp in, given what his family has gone through.
“These guys are human and they’re no different than anyone else out there. They go through things like we all do,” the coach said.
During practice Friday, team owner Terry Pegula approached Peko, offering a handshake and some words of support.
“As soon as I told them the news, football comes second to family. They were all about me doing what I had to do, taking care of my family,” Peko said of Pegula, General Manager Brandon Beane and McDermott. “I couldn't have asked for anything more. This camp is that time of year when everybody is trying to be out here grinding to make this team. They were super understanding, and I appreciate it. Hats off to them.”
Peko, 6-foot-1 and 305 pounds, was signed to the Bills’ practice squad after Week 1 last year, and finished the season there. The team signed him to a reserve/future contract the day after the 2018 season ended.
Peko’s first two years in the NFL were spent bouncing back and forth from the practice squad to the Denver Broncos’ active roster. He appeared in one game in 2016 and six in 2017, making eight tackles.
It’s fair to say Peko can be considered a long shot for the Bills’ 53-man roster. Defensive tackle is one of the team’s deeper positions with Star Lotulelei, Jordan Phillips and Harrison Phillips returning from last year’s roster, along with the addition of first-round draft pick Ed Oliver.
That challenge, however, pales in comparison to what his wife is dealing with.
“My wife is strong. She's a fighter,” Peko said. “I've just got to be strong for her and for my kids. … I'll have to be the rock here as much as I can while she's back there taking care of business. She's doing good now. Very positive. As good as anybody could be taking it, I guess.”