In a media workroom packed with family, teammates, coaches, owners and the Patriots media beat writers, Rob Ninkovich retired in an emotional ceremony that celebrated his Patriots career.
It is hard to characterize Ninkovich as anything other than another quintessential Patriots success story during the Bill Belichick reign. Deemed too slow to play linebacker, too small to play defensive end, he was cut four times by a couple of teams before he landed in New England. Coincidentally, he arrived right around the time that Tedy Bruschi retired, something our Ian Logue pointed out on Friday as we discussed his possible retirement.
Ninkovich shared many of the same traits as Bruschi who faced many of the same questions when he came to New England. He put the work in, played on special teams and molded himself into a tremendously, versatile, valuable football player. He was never the most athletic, never the fastest or the flashiest on the field. But at crunch time, there was no one better.
Dec 14, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich (50) sacks Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) during the second half at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots won 41-13. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
Ninkovich retires at 33 and after 11 years in the NFL, but the last eight with New England. In his eight seasons with the Patriots Ninkovich produced 46 sacks, 5 interceptions, 10 forced fumbles and 14 fumble recoveries. But those numbers don’t tell the whole story, nearly every one of those stats came at a crucial juncture of the game. Ninkovich epitomized the term “money player” as the bigger the stage, the better he’d play.
Belichick in his remarks, said to Ninkovich directly, “Personally, I can’t thank you enough for your contributions to the team, to the organization,” Belichick said. “I never coached a more unselfish player. It was always about the team, about how Rob helped the team.
“‘What do you need me to do, coach?. … Whatever you need me to do.'”
Belichick spoke about the Patriots scouting Ninkovich in college but he went to New Orleans who had the pick before New England that season. And he said for a guy too slow to be a linebacker and too small to play defensive end, he became an excellent at both thru hard work. And then there’s this: “Knowing you have a good backup long snapper allows you to sleep good at night”, is so Belichick and just speaks of Ninkovich’s versatility.
Belichick in a sign of respect sat on the floor during Ninkovich’s remarks and the entire team was in the media room. Several players fought back tears as he spoke. Robert Kraft made some glowing remarks on Ninkovich and showed a video montage of some of his greatest plays. “I think he has the best beard in franchise history … his beard put those hockey beards to shame,” Kraft said.
Ninkovich thanked many people in his remarks from his high school days to the Krafts but he only got emotional when he directed his remarks at Belichick. “Coach, I gave you everything I had. I hope it was enough. I love this game. Thank you.”
Rob Ninkovich strip sacks Peyton Manning in a game in Foxboro. (SBalestrieri photo)
Ninkovich moves on, one of the smarter guys to play his position for the Patriots. He always knew his assignment and was rarely, if ever, out of position. He goes out on top as a Super Bowl champion. He was a member of three Super Bowl teams with the Patriots winning the last two and in those, he was, as he always was, a valuable, unheralded piece of the puzzle.
He had a reputation as one of the nicer guys on the team. He was accessible win or lose even when there were times he really didn’t want to talk. Last summer, he was banged up. As the media in the locker room crowded around his cubicle, he stiffened, clearly not wanting to talk.
But instead of getting surly or refusing to say anything, he took it stride and made everyone laugh. As Chris Long entered and took a seat in the locker next to his, Ninkovich said, “OMG, it is Chris Long! Hey, guys, Chris Long is here! The media along with Long cracked up. And then he spoke anyway for a few minutes. Just like the professional he is.
The team hoisted their 26th member’s name into their Hall of Fame Saturday with Raymond Clayborn. But if there is a guy who represents the Bill Belichick era like the Tedy Bruschi’s or the Mike Vrabel’s it is Ninkovich. He’s the gritty, smart, versatile underdog who wasn’t a great at any one thing, but very, very good at a number of things. And moreover, he was and always will be a winner. So before he gets out the door, get that man’s measurements, he is a very fitting person for the team’s Hall.
The Patriots lost themselves a tremendous veteran presence on Sunday. Both on and off the field, he represented the team well in his many years with the team. On the colder, business side of things, Belichick has probably already scouted the wire to fill Ninkovich’s spot on the roster. And the guy that they’ll fill his slot with will probably be not highly rated, or someone that other teams don’t think to have a chance in hell at making it in the NFL.
But that player may just have the drive, the desire to not only make a roster spot but excel in the league. Just like so many others here have, given the chance, Rob Ninkovich would approve.
See you in five years Ninko…we’ll recognize you. You’ll be the guy in the red jacket.