Ask Rob Ninkovich if he remembers his first NFL opening day, and he barely flinches before recalling the details.
“Played Cleveland. That was a long time ago now,” he said Thursday, thinking back to 2006, when he was an undrafted rookie with the Saints. “Two tackles on defense, I believe.”
Actually, the stats say he had three tackles that day, a 19-14 victory for the Saints, but close enough. Ninkovich remembered that the game ended on a big play — an interception by Saints safety Josh Bullocks — and the feeling of finally realizing his dream and playing in the NFL.
“I was super-excited. It was a great feeling,” Ninkovich said. “I wish I could go back in time and get it again.”
As Ninkovich knows, when as many as 13 Patriots rookies suit up for their first NFL regular-season game Sunday in Buffalo, it will be an experience they will remember for the rest of their lives.
“Yeah, I mean, it’s kind of crazy. It’s been my dream my whole life, to be able to play in an NFL game, and then this Sunday is my first opportunity,” seventh-round defensive end Michael Buchanan said. “It’s almost kind of breathtaking, just thinking about all I’ve been through up to this point. I’m ready for it, and I’m excited.”
Ninkovich is hardly alone in being able to instantly recall his first NFL opening day. Defensive tackle Tommy Kelly doesn’t even let you finish asking if he remembers his first NFL game when he answers, “I got on the board, got a sack that day,” against Pittsburgh in 2004.
Kelly also was a nervous wreck at the start of the game.
“You’re so nervous, so amped up, the simplest little calls might throw you off,” Kelly said. “But if you get one or two good series, your pads get set, you’ll be fine.”
Tom Brady has won three Super Bowls, married a supermodel, and made more than $100 million on the field and through endorsements, yet he produces an icy glare when asked if he remembers his first opening day, in 2000.
“Yes,” he said, curtly. “It wasn’t a very good day for our team.”
The Patriots lost, 21-16, at home to Tampa Bay. Brady was the third-string quarterback that day and didn’t play, but it still stings him 13 years later.
“It wasn’t a good day for the Patriots,” he said.
NFL players are often viewed as tough, faceless warriors who risk their health and well-being to do battle each Sunday. But for many of the young athletes, simply cracking a roster is the thrill of a lifetime and the result of years of hard work and fighting through self-doubt. They’ll call their mother and father after the game, trade text messages with their high school friends, and probably keep a few mementos.
“Think I kept a program and maybe the gloves I wore,” special teams ace Matthew Slater said. “Mom and Dad have them at home.”
Slater’s first NFL game was certainly memorable, though not for all the right reasons. It was against the Chiefs in 2008 — a game that needs no further explaining for Patriots and serious NFL fans.
“It was obviously so shocking seeing your leader and the heart of the team sustain the injury that he did, so obviously that really stands out as much as anything,” Slater said of Brady. “It was like a punch to the gut when that happened. But at the same time it was special for me as an individual, because of being able to realize my dream.”
Slater said he still gets butterflies before opening day, even in his sixth NFL season.
“You’re fortunate and blessed enough to be starting another campaign, and it’s a lot of excitement and anticipation of all the hard work you’ve put in in the offseason,” he said.
Most of the Patriots’ rookies won’t have family support in the stands on Sunday, and instead their loved ones will check them out Thursday in the home opener against the Jets.
They’re trying to keep their emotions in check leading up to Sunday’s game, but it won’t be easy. Receiver Aaron Dobson called it “overwhelming.” Linebacker Jamie Collins said he’s “anxious to get out there and see what it’s really like.” Receiver Josh Boyce texted with his parents all week back in Texas.
“Just saying, ‘You’ve been playing football your whole life, so just do what you know how to do,’ ” Boyce said.
The game will be extra special for Bills quarterback E.J. Manuel. Not only will it be his first NFL game, but more importantly, his mother will be in the stands.
Jackie Manuel didn’t see most of E.J.’s games as a senior at Florida State last year because she was being treated for breast cancer. But “she’s been in remission for about two months now,” E.J. said, “and she’s back to her normal lifestyle, moving around, going to work, and things like that, so I’m really happy for her.
“Obviously, any time you have someone in your family deal with cancer, any type of cancer, it’s hard to deal with, especially when it’s your last year in college and you have a lot of pressure on you. The fact that she’s doing well now and she’ll be in the stands to watch me play against the New England Patriots, man, nothing could be better than that.”
Slater said it is important for the veterans to keep the rookies under control before Sunday’s game.
“We have to continue to send the message throughout the week — they’ve put in the prep work in practice, and it’s no different now,” he said. “Obviously, the stakes are a little bit higher, but it’s still football. Try to just breathe and let the game happen.”
COMPETITION HAD LEGS
Not the first time Allen fought for job
Suffice to say, this competition turned out a lot better for Ryan Allen than the last one did.
Allen, 23, is the Patriots’ new punter after beating out incumbent Zoltan Mesko after five weeks of training camp. Allen’s numbers weren’t necessarily better — Mesko had a higher net average (38.1 to 32.5) and slightly higher gross average (45.2 to 45.0) with twice as many punts — but Allen was nearly $1 million cheaper, which likely played heavily in his favor.
Either way, Allen isn’t complaining. He’s thrilled to win the Patriots’ punting job — certainly, it’s a lot better than the alternative, which he knows well.
Allen’s childhood dream was to play football at Oregon State like his uncles did, and he walked on the team as a freshman in 2008. But Allen, a native of Salem, Ore., faced tough competition from a fellow walk-on — Johnny Hekker, now the Rams’ punter. The two developed a great relationship — “we’re best friends now,” Allen said — but Hekker won the job in each of Allen’s two years at OSU.
“I hung around a little longer, and I was confident enough to leave and get my last few years of school paid for, so I packed a duffel bag and went to the south,” Allen said.
He earned a scholarship to Louisiana Tech, and because he was only a walk-on at Oregon State, he could play right away in 2010. And Allen not only got school paid for, he turned out to be a pretty darn good punter.
In 2011, he finished fifth in the nation in punting average, and in 2012 he finished first at 48.04 yards. He won the Ray Guy Award both times as college football’s top punter, becoming the first player in NCAA history to do so.
“I would’ve liked to have been at a bigger school, but Louisiana Tech was an amazing experience,” Allen said. “It worked out for the best. It really did.”
And while Allen has a big leg — despite averaging less on punts than Mesko in the preseason, he consistently outdistanced Mesko in practice — his best attribute might be his accuracy, which is important in New England given how many times he’ll be punting on a short field.
Allen trains in the offseason with several kickers and punters — Hekker, Oakland’s Marquette King, and Miami kicker Caleb Sturgis, among others — and excels at the coffin corner and directional kicks, said his coach, Mike McCabe of One on One Kicking.
“He’s a tactician. He can place it wherever he wants to,” McCabe said from his facility in Pensacola, Fla. “He’s an amazing talent. Works really hard at his craft.”
No other choice for Hoomanawanui
For example No. 4,873 why life isn’t fair for NFL players, we present the case of Patriots tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, who was forced to take a pay cut last week, and there was nothing he could do about it.
For background: Hoomanawanui, the Rams’ fifth-round pick in 2010, was a restricted free agent this past offseason, and the Patriots placed on him an “original round” tender, which guaranteed him a one-year salary of $1.323 million and would force any other team wishing to sign him to trade the Patriots a draft pick equal to the round in which Hoomanawanui was drafted.
No team was willing to pay that price — not one restricted free agent in the entire NFL changed teams this offseason — so Hoomanawanui returned to the Patriots on a one-year, $1.323 million deal, nearly triple the $540,000 he made in 2012.
But the contract came with a big problem — it had zero guaranteed money. The Patriots could have cut Hoomanawanui before Week 1 and wouldn’t have owed him a dime. So why pay Hoomanawanui, a nice blocking tight end and special teams contributor, $1.323 million when they don’t have to?
His new salary got slashed last week to $630,000, the minimum salary for a four-year veteran, although if he plays 25, 35, or 45 percent of snaps he can earn as much as $370,000 in incentives.
Hoomanawanui had little choice when the Patriots approached him last week — either take a pay cut, or get cut.
This isn’t a case of the evil Patriots putting the screws to a loyal employee. It’s a common tactic around the NFL, and another vivid example of how little leverage most players have in contract negotiations if they want to stick in the league.
And speaking of the salary cap, as of late last week, the Patriots had about $13.7 million in cap space, according to NFL Players Association records. But they have good reason to stick a few extra dollars under the mattress this year.
Teams are allowed to roll over any unused cap space to the next season, and the Patriots will need a little extra money to pay for Aaron Hernandez, who will count $7.5 million against the cap next year, the final year he will be on the books.
Keeping score in many ways
As we embark on a new season, let’s take a look at a few interesting stats:
Total miles traveled
The 49ers will be the most well-traveled team this year, flying 32,948 miles to their eight road games, including three in the Eastern time zone and three in the Central. The Chargers are second at 26,932 miles, followed by the Raiders (26,240), Seahawks (23,914), and Cardinals (20,620). The Jaguars are the non-West Coast team with the most travel, coming in sixth at 19,686 miles.
The Patriots have only one game outside the Eastern time zone (Dec. 1 at Houston) and are 23d with 12,024 miles. The Lions bring up the rear with 4,202 miles traveled this year.
The top-10 selling jerseys between April 1 and June 30, 2013:
1. Colin Kaepernick; 2. Russell Wilson; 3. Robert Griffin III; 4. Adrian Peterson; 5. Peyton Manning; 6. Ryan Tannehill; 7. Tom Brady; 8. Ray Lewis; 9. Aaron Rodgers; 10. Brian Urlacher.
Interesting to see two retired players — Lewis and Urlacher — still among the best sellers. New Broncos receiver Wes Welker was 24th.
Top winning percentages among active QBs
1. Brady (.777); 2. Matt Ryan (.718); 3. Ben Roethlisberger (.690); 4. Andrew Luck (.688); 5. Manning (.688).
Brady also enters the season with 334 touchdown passes, eight behind Fran Tarkenton for fourth in NFL history. Dan Marino is third with 420, and Manning now has 443, 65 behind Brett Favre, after his seven-touchdown outburst on Thursday.
It’s never easy seeing an old photo or watching an old video of yourself without feeling at least a twinge of regret — those jean shorts at least seemed cool back in 1993 — so it couldn’t have been easy for LaDainian Tomlinson to watch the NFL Network’s “A Football Life” documentary on Tomlinson that appeared last week.
During the show, Tomlinson sent out a couple of messages on his Twitter account expressing regret for calling Bill Belichick “classless” after some Patriots danced on the Chargers’ logo after an intense 2006 playoff victory.
“I certainly regret when I said the Patriots classless act came from their head coach,” Tomlinson tweeted. “I should of kept it between the players. Bill Belichick had nothing to do with it.”
In a move straight out of elementary school, the NFL had its new head coaches fill out questionnaires that would reveal a little bit of the coaches’ personalities — What team did you root for growing up? What is your favorite uniform? Your favorite meal? And so on.
We learn a few interesting facts — such as that Chiefs coach Andy Reid loves the old Los Angeles Rams uniforms, and Browns coach Rob Chudzinski would most like to meet Abraham Lincoln. We also find out that the last book read by Cardinals coach Bruce Arians was: “The Arizona Cardinals’ playbook by Bruce Arians.”
And then there’s new Eagles coach Chip Kelly, whose answers were entertaining if not a bit strange.
His favorite food: “Sandwiches” (which ones?). Favorite uniform: “Boston Celtics” (good answer). The most overrated aspect of football: “The NFL draft” (oh, really?).
And who has the hardest job in football? “No one, it is a game.”
Touché, Chip.Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.