At the time, Rob Ninkovich wasn't too happy about being released by the Saints at the end of July, 2009. Most training camps around the league had already started up, making it an awkward time to hook on with another club. Today, the Patriots' versatile pass rusher would prefer to thank Sean Peyton instead, for giving him the opportunity to be where he is now.
Ninkovich was the featured speaker for the Hall at Patriot Place speaker series last night, where he spent an hour answering questions and telling stories to a sold-out crowd of very appreciative fans. Here are a few notes from the event, strictly from memory, that I wanted to share. If you ever have a chance to attend the speaker series, by all means do so. They're terrific.
One theme that stood out for me was how focused and disciplined Ninkovich was in his football journey, even down to a check-off list of what he wanted to accomplish.
He avoided the normal partying that most college kids take part in because that might have caused him to perform at a lower level, which might have hurt his chances of going pro. That's dedication to a plan.
After the Saints released him for the second time, in July 2009, he talked about the awareness he had that this was a make-or-break moment for his career.
When his agent told him to get on a plane to New England, he only had to pack up the Rubbermaid containers he was living out of. Nick Caserio explained that whether he made the team or not was up to him and how he performed. Training camp was four days in session when he signed. He learned what he was supposed to be doing from veterans like Adalius Thomas.
Rob knew that he had to get noticed if he wanted to be more than just a camp body and earn a spot, so he would line himself up against Matt Light. He beat Light in a drill, and Dante Scarnecchia (after a few choice words) made them run it again. Ninko beat him again, and then a third time. When the tape came out, Light took the brunt of it for his lowlights, getting beat by the new guy, but Ninko loved it because it was his highlight reel.
A turning point for him was the Denver game in 2009. He had been playing mostly special teams, which was the typical route for guys trying to earn playing time. In the second quarter Belichick told him to go in on defense and "make a play." He knew he was being given an opportunity and he went out and sacked Kyle Orton. His first career sack.
He got a terrific reaction when asked about his 'Jet Killer' reputation, the overtime strip-sack, fumble-recovery when he couldn't believe Mark Sanchez not only showed him the ball, but seemingly held it out there for him. He tried to just 'tackle him everywhere' and was rewarded when he could feel the ball pop out. His next instinct was to just scramble for the loose ball and hold on.
The butt-fumble game was one of the lighter moments for the team on film-review day.
Games against the Miami Dolphins are circled on Rob's calendar, as he admits the wins feel extra good against the team that didn't consider him good enough for them.
Ninkovich talked about Belichick's strength as a motivator, and how he gets the best out of so many players with such different personalities. He admits he plays better when he's angry, and Belichick knows what to say to push his buttons on game day.
A fun story he shared was how former Pats OL Donald Thomas used to get ribbed, merely for the fact that his first name was Donald. Lots of duck figurines would end up in his locker. Matt Light (of course) took it a step further one day by bringing in a real live duckling to put in his locker. No one saw him do it and the duckling just seemed to appear. Nate Solder took the duckling home and he still has it.
One thing Ninkovich takes exception to is being referred to as a JAG. He believes he's worked too hard, improved each season, put everything he has into preparation, time in the film room, in practice, and on Sundays, to be written off as 'just a guy'. A quick look at his stats proves his case, and any opponent that wants to overlook him can do so at their own risk. Just ask Mark Sanchez or Matt Schaub.