FOXBORO -- There have been a slew of important football players to come through New England and Bill Belichick’s program doing back to 2000, but very few get the star treatment when the end comes. That’s been reserved for the likes of the “Perfect Patriot” Tedy Bruschi, Matt Light, Kevin Faulk, Troy Brown and Doug Flutie. Rob Ninkovich joined that select crew Sunday, with the team holding a press conference in front of the media, ownership and just about every coach and player on the current roster. Unique. At times moving, and left no doubt how much the 33-year old impacted his usually irritable head coach.
“Personally, [I] just can’t thank you enough for your contributions to the team [and] to the organization. I haven’t had a – never coached a more unselfish player and I’ve coached a lot of them but you go right up in there in that top echelon group. It was always about the team. It was always about how Rob could help somebody else. ‘What do you need me to do, coach? Do you need me to play here, play there, do something else? I can do this. I’ll snap, I’ll cover kicks, I’ll play linebacker, I’ll rush, I’ll cover. Whatever you need me to do.’
As only he can do, Belichick detailed when the relationship began, back when the Pats prepared for the 2006 draft and they looked at - and bypassed - the Purdue standout.
“He was a little bit of a ‘Was he a linebacker? Was he a defensive end?’ Well it turned out he was both and we missed him the first time around but we finally got it right.”
After injuries in New Orleans and a 1-15 Dolphins team that didn’t think highly enough of Ninkovich to keep him, this “tweener” ended up back on the Pats radar in 2009. Thank goodness for that.
“We’re sitting there in training camp in 2009 lacking a little depth at the outside linebacker position. Nick [Caserio] said ‘There’s a guy, Rob, he should be on a roster, he should be in a camp and he’s available so let’s get him.’ Really, it’s just history after that. Rob came in and did a great job for us in the kicking game, started playing on defense the following year in 2010, was a regular player for us. [He] had the big game Monday night against Miami – two interceptions, fumble, made a very athletic play, made a great interception and we saw his coverage skill. It kind of just went on from there. Just year after year of production – sacks, forced fumbles, recovered fumbles.”
The encyclopedic Belichick rattled off more numbers - 24 fumbles forced and recovered by the steady Ninkovich - and five interceptions.
“I mean we just go on and on and on,” he said “I mean there are so many big plays he made through the course of his career.”
Impressive for a player who truly had to earn everything he got and then worked his ass off to keep it. That, in Belichick’s mind, put him in another notable group.
“Like a lot of guys, he came in here very unheralded; [Tom] Brady, Malcolm Butler, guys like that and the guy he replaced, No. 50 Mike Vrabel. [He] didn’t come in with a lot of fanfare but just came in and worked hard and became a very, very versatile player for us. He played defensive end, inside linebacker, outside linebacker, all the kicking game, was our backup snapper…”
“His versatility was really exceptional which is a tribute to his intelligence, his preparation and his overall skill set. Rob’s got very good playing strength. Maybe he got some of that when he was tossing those steel beams around in Chicago with his dad. But [he] worked very hard in the weight room, had very good playing strength, ran well, athletic and, like I said, all day tough and versatile. [He was a] team captain, one of the real leaders of the team. You can see the testament of everybody here what Rob means to all of us and what he’s meant to all of us.”
Belichick then locked eyes with Ninkovich and addressed him personally.
“You’ve had a tremendous career. You’ve earned every single thing that you’ve gotten. 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. All the things that we preach for our program, Rob epitomizes. Congratulations on a tremendous career. It’s been an honor to coach you. Thank you for your contributions to the Patriots and to me personally. Thank you.”
In that moment, Belichick spoke not only for himself, but for every Patriot in that room. It was a fitting end to one hell of a run.