When Rob Ninkovich joined the New England Patriots in the summer of 2009, the defensive ends he’d one day call his teammates were still in high school.
Or, in some cases, just starting it.
None of whom are over the age of 25 now. Only two of whom, Trey Flowers and Geneo Grissom, have played a down for New England. Three others are rookies. And another, former Carolina Panther Kony Ealy, has three years of NFL service under his belt.
There are no elder statesmen to be found.
That speaks to the longevity of a player who’d been cut four times by two teams. One who’d appeared in eight games through three seasons. One who’d torn his ACL and moved between inside and outside linebacker, defensive end, special-teamer and long snapper. One who, at one point, had his clothes packed in Rubbermaid containers and was sleeping at an extended stay in Miami.
Rob Ninkovich’s don’t come around too often.
“Just a special, really special guy,” Bill Belichick reflected Sunday at Gillette Stadium, via Patriots.com. “My relationship with him goes all the way back to Purdue when we scouted him coming out in the ‘06 draft. Was he a linebacker? Was he a defensive end? Well, it turned out he was both. We missed him the first time around, but we finally got it right.”
The Patriots got it right on Aug. 2, 2009. It was then that Ninkovich, who went No. 135 overall to the New Orleans Saints minutes before New England hit the clock three years prior, was signed by the team he thought was calling him on draft day.
A circuitous route it proved to be for the product of Joliet Junior College and the Boilermakers. Along the way was a stop on the Saints’ injured reserve as a rookie, parts of two seasons between the Dolphins’ practice squad and active roster, and a return to New Orleans that ultimately concluded with the signing of a long snapper named Jason Kyle on July 30, 2009.
“It took a while,” Ninkovich said of what followed his ACL. “After that injury it took three years to get another opportunity. In 2009, I was a long snapper with the Saints. Every day I was like, ‘Man, I could be playing defense somewhere. I could be a defensive end but I’m snapping a football.’ God had a plan for me and I was released. That was a blessing.”
That blessing got Ninkovich to where he stood Sunday afternoon, as a captain before a room so overflowing with teammates, coaches, family and media members that his head coach opted to sit on the floor.
But it was a seat Belichick was glad to take. Ninkovich had taken many.
“After New Orleans, Miami, back to New Orleans, we were sitting there in training camp in 2009, lacking a little bit of depth at the outside linebacker position,” Belichick explained. “Nick [Caserio] said, ‘There’s a guy. Rob should be on a roster, he should be in camp, and he’s available. He said, ‘Let’s get him.’ Really, it’s just history after that.”
Sunday marked the end of a history that almost never began. That settled in as Ninkovich, the sixth-longest tenured member of the roster, stepped to the lectern to announce his retirement after 11 campaigns in the NFL and eight in Foxborough.
The 33-year-old announced it after 123 regular-season games and 101 starts there, and after 454 tackles, 46 sacks, five interceptions, 24 fumbles either forced or recovered, a touchdown and a pair of Super Bowl rings. What he became wasn’t what he was supposed to be.
A No. 45 practice jersey and a test. That’s how it began for Ninkovich in New England. He remembers his first day on the job well, knowing it could have also been his last.
“When I got here, I was on a late flight, I got in super early and I had to run the conditioning test,” Ninkovich said. “And let me tell you, I was all by myself, I was a week into camp and I told myself, ‘If I don’t make this test, I’m gone.’ So, I made the test, and the first practice I had to turn some heads. I had to do my best to – this is my only chance – make the best of this chance.”
Ninkovich proceeded to take that chance and beat Pro Bowl left tackle Matt Light on three consecutive reps. By the end of them, he’d earned a place as a highlight in Belichick’s post-practice film study.
“‘This kid just got here and he knows how to rush, and by the time we’re done with him he won’t know what he’s doing,’” Ninkovich recalled Belichick saying in the meeting room. “I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but it was a great memory.”
Ninkovich would soon make more memories. He’d soon earn a new jersey number and a place in the kicking game. He’d then earn a starting role midway through the 2010 season and hold it up through 2016.
But the respect was preexisting.
“You've earned every single thing that you've gotten,” Belichick told Ninkovich. “Nobody gave you anything. Nobody had worked harder for it. As a coach, I'm extremely proud of what you've accomplished and you earned every single thing – all those sacks, all those forced fumbles, all those tackles, all those big plays. You got there with hard work and perseverance, dedication, preparation.”
A free agent who got to New England a week into camp, Ninkovich is leaving it the same way almost eight years to the day.
And, exactly eight years removed from his last release, it is only fitting.