FOXBORO -- Matt Light couldn't refute the story. He remembered it the same way.
During Rob Ninkovich's retirement press conference on Sunday, he recalled his first practice in New England. It was 2009. He felt like his NFL career was hanging by a thread. He knew he had to turn some heads, and he got the opportunity to do just that when he lined up across from Matt Light during three consecutive one-on-one pass-rush drills.
Ninkovich happily recalled winning three consecutive reps against the team's longtime starter at left tackle, which caught the eye of both Dante Scarnecchia and Bill Belichick. Calling during a break from some early-morning work in rural Ohio, Light said the story was 100 percent accurate -- but he jokingly added a wrinkle of his own.
"Rob was a guy I respected and admired," Light said. "He tells that story of the first day, and it happened exactly like that. First rep of one-on-ones in pass pro, he smokes me. Second rep? Smokes me. Third rep? Smokes me. But he made the team, and as a fellow Purdue guy, we needed as many of those guys -- intelligent, good-looking -- that we could possibly get on our team. So of course I let him have those."
Light added: "I'm going to tell you this much, man. He showed up that day and of course I knew of Rob. I never got to spend much time with him. We were kind of two ships passing with respect to Purdue. But I sure as heck wasn't awake that morning. I quickly started paying a lot more attention after that first day. I tell you, he came in loaded for bear, and there's times in practice where you're not ready and you're not dialed up, and he definitely caught me on those.
"He's a great player, man. He's the kind of guy, he can lull you to sleep sometimes, and when he needs to make a big play, he makes them. I think that was kind of his MO for the team. Bill felt very comfortable knowing that when he needed a play out of somebody on defense that he was gonna get one. He knew he was going to get it consistently form Rob, but he knew when [the situation] was dialed up, he was gonna get a big play from Rob. That's just the way that guy played. He prepared. Somebody told me that Belichick noted that [Ninkovich] earned everything he got. I'd say he earned everything he got and a lot more."
Light and Ninkovich spent three years together as teammates and are still close, and Light said that they had occasional conversations about retirement as Ninkovich considered it even dating back to last year.
"I know that he wrestled with the idea before last season a little bit," Light said. "When do I hang it up? How's my body going to hold up? Just in talking with Rob earlier last week, and just kind of over the last year, I definitely get the sense that he was placing a lot more value and spending time with his family and what the future kind of holds for him with respect to life outside of football. Every guy struggles with that and every guy thinks about it. But when you can get to a point in your career where those conversations start coming up, and your mindset starts going to places like that, you're in a good spot. Not a lot of guys get that opportunity. Not a lot of guys earn the right to do that, but he did.
"I think that your body tells you the most in those kind of situations. I can remember thinking to myself, I've ben pretty fortunate. I've had 13 major surgeries before I retire and I thought no need to get off this awesome number . . . When you start thinking that way, it's definitely time to take the next step and have that conversation with your wife and your family and your friends. Talking with Rob, I said, 'Man, you're gonna make the best decision, you're thinking about it, you're dealing with it, whatever it is.' It's just a very unique time in any player's life, but for him to do it on his terms, having felt great about his career, what he put into the game, what he got back from it, that's the note every guy who plays the game wants to go out on."
Light fondly looked back on Ninkovich's career, he said, because he understood the work that Ninkovich put in behind the scenes. And when that work led to success, there wasn't much in the way of look-at-me associated with Ninkovich's game, Light pointed out.
"It's hard to put Ninkovich into words," Light said, noting that Ninkovich's humility was in some ways outlier relative to other highly-productive players in the league. "Probably for most of his career, I wouldn't say he was overlooked but probably undervalued."
Before signing off, Light did have one thing he wanted to get off of his chest. But it wasn't about the one-on-ones with Ninkovich.
"One thing I would like to correct, what I did hear is that Mr. [Robert] Kraft noted that [Ninkovich] had the best beard in franchise history," Light said. "And I would just like to say this: While Rob did beat me in our first practice, and I will clearly acknowledge that, I cannot acknowledge that his Croatian beard surpasses my German beard. I mean, c'mon. Listen, man. It's never been about stats for a fat guy. It's been about my overall facial features, my upper-lip plumage, and the fact that I can sprout some gnarly growth on my face, and that's honestly where I take most of my satisfaction in life.
"No, the thing with Ninkovich, man, he'll be missed," Light said, "but oddly enough they keep finding ways to win even when you're not there so they'll find the next one I'm sure."