FOXBOROUGH — Disinterested, disgruntled, and on one memorable occasion completely disgusted, Rob Ninkovich had every intention of quitting.
Ninkovich, then a teenaged eighth-grader in the Chicago suburb of New Lenox, Ill., exceeded the youth football weight limit, so he decided to give wrestling a try. He hated it from the start. As a 180-pound heavyweight, Ninkovich was paired against bigger, more experienced wrestlers. The worst was when he hit the mat after another wrestler in a prior match had vomited.
So Ninkovich, as teens sometimes do, complained to his parents. Mike and Deborah Ninkovich, as sensible, responsible parents often do, delivered an answer the teen didn’t exactly appreciate.
“I came home and said, ‘Dad, I don’t like this.’ And he says, ‘Well, you’re going to have to see it through,’ so I had to finish the whole thing,” Ninkovich said. “I got better as I went along, but it wasn’t my thing. Longest year of my athletic life. I wanted to quit after the first day.”
Only he didn’t. It wouldn’t be the last time the future NFL defensive end chose not to quit, and the Patriots are better for it. Because of the lesson handed down years ago to Ninkovich — the son of an iron worker, and the grandson of an iron worker — he knew that when life appears to take an unsavory turn, something sweet might be waiting right around the corner. He’s seen it in his professional life, and his personal one.
Before Rob Ninkovich became the player who will start at defensive end for the Patriots on Saturday in their playoff game against the visiting Baltimore Ravens, he was a senior at Lincoln-Way Central High School with no college scholarship offers. After spending two years at nearby Joliet (Ill.) Junior College, it took Ninkovich one day to convince himself he’d someday play in the NFL.
“He may not be the most athletic guy they’ve got, but he’ll outwork you, he’s smarter, and he’ll do things the way you coach him, while others might say, ‘I’m going to do it my way.’ Robbie only wants to get better,” said Tom Minnick, who recruited Ninkovich to Joliet and is now the head coach at Arizona Western College. “His goal was to play in the NFL, like a lot of kids, but he took advantage of it. I knew he’d be successful, because he didn’t do everything you asked him to do. He did more.”
Back to the day that convinced Ninkovich he’d become a pro.
“I knew the first day I walked onto the field for spring ball at Purdue that I was going to be able to play higher than college,” he said. “Knew it. I’ve surprised many people, but I’ve never surprised myself. That’s the story of my life, I guess. Every place I’ve been, I’ve surprised people.”
Some saw Ninkovich’s drive to succeed right away. Some still see it.
“He had unbelievable quickness, a suddenness to his game, had a high football IQ. But if you looked in his eyes, there was a want-to. You could tell he wanted to play the game, you could tell he wanted to be good, and he worked at it. Look in his eyes. You can see it,” said Tony Samuel, who was Purdue’s defensive line coach during Ninkovich’s senior season. “In one year, I can’t tell you that there was one play he took off, in practice or a game. That’s the ultimate compliment.”
The only place Ninkovich didn’t want to go after leaving Purdue was the place he wound up going. As the fifth round of the 2006 NFL Draft was beginning, Ninkovich thought he’d be selected by the Patriots, who had the 136th overall pick. Instead, he went No. 135, to the New Orleans Saints.
“My mom asked me, ‘Where do you not want to go play?’ I said New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina had just hit,” Ninkovich said. “I love New Orleans now.”
That’s primarily because he met his wife, Paige, while briefly playing for the Saints. He and Paige are the parents of an 18-month-old daughter, Olivia.
Spend some time with Ninkovich and details emerge. He’s humble but has always been extremely confident. He’s stubborn but responds best when coached by old-school, military-type (his words), strong individuals (sound like anyone in particular, perhaps favors a hoodie?). He’s quiet, but not afraid to speak up.
“I’m stubborn. I would say it’s helped me get to where I’m at, because I was persistent, and being stubborn helped me forget about things that could have kept me out of the league,” Ninkovich said. “I think that goes back to having confidence in yourself. I was always confident that I could get to a high level and play at a high level. I just needed the right chance, the right opportunity. Life’s all about opportunity.
“Sitting in Cam Cameron’s office asking for playing time when we’re 0-10, was that a bold thing to do? I don’t think so. I was trying to play on a team that wasn’t any good.”
That was in 2007, when Ninkovich ended up appearing in four games for the 1-15 Miami Dolphins. His first three seasons in the NFL were marred by injury and uncertainty. He tore knee ligaments twice and was released four times, bouncing between the Saints and Dolphins, active roster and practice squad. When he signed with the Patriots on Aug. 2, 2009, Ninkovich had eight NFL games to his credit, a question of what position he’d play (defensive end, linebacker, long snapper), but the unwavering belief that all he needed was a chance.
Bill Belichick, the Patriots, and defensive end — although he filled in at long snapper against the Chargers this season — have all been perfect fits for Ninkovich.
“Rob’s a tough Croatian, tough Croatian kid,” Belichick said earlier this season (like Ninkovich, the Patriots coach also has Croatian roots). “He’s really strong for his size, been durable. He’s athletic, he’s been able to definitely take care of himself out there and play in a lot of different situations. He’s strong enough to play against bigger people, and athletic enough to play in some space and coverage situations, whatever the requirements are. I don’t think anybody is looking to take him off the field.”
Certainly not Ninkovich, who compares his job at defensive end to a chess match.
“There’s something about being a defensive end . . . that guy [quarterback] is a target, I’m going against someone that’s trying to stop me. That’s a great challenge, to go against somebody that’s trying to stop you from getting to his prized possession. If you can consistently beat that guy, it’s fun, there’s nothing like it,” Ninkovich said. “It’s all a mind game of where you’re going to be, how’s [the offensive lineman] going to set you. Do you go with power, do you run around him, do you come underneath him?
“There’s so many different things you do as a defensive lineman. I love that. It’s kind of like a progression through the game: How am I going to start off the game, where am I going to be in the third quarter, and then on a gotta-have-it play, what am I going to do, it has to be something that he’s never seen me do yet.”
Applying the pressure
He’ll be chasing Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco on Saturday, looking to add to the team-leading eight sacks he had in the regular season. That’s been a popular number for Ninkovich: He had eight sacks this season, eight sacks last season, eight sacks the season before. He had eight sacks as a senior at Purdue, and eight sacks as a junior. Counting the playoffs, Ninkovich has 39½ sacks in his six seasons with the Patriots; he’s missed just one game during that time, and has started every game in each of the last four seasons.
It’s his body of work — the durability, consistency, productivity, and nose for the ball (13 fumble recoveries the last five seasons, which leads the league) — that’s endeared Ninkovich to his teammates.
“Other than his sacks? I love his sacks,” said safety Devin McCourty, when asked what he likes best about Ninkovich. “I really admire Rob’s attitude toward the game. From getting to know him since I’ve been here, [he’s] a guy that’s fought and clawed all through his career. His ability to make big plays in clutch moments, that’s been key. He’s done it time after time.”
All this from someone who, because of injuries and pink slips early in his NFL career, had opportunities to give up the chase. Maybe the unhappy wrestler in him still lingers, because Ninkovich kept pressing on, despite being told by some NFL coaches that maybe he wasn’t good enough.
Why didn’t he just quit?
“Because I knew deep down that I could play,” Ninkovich said. “In high school, I knew I could play higher. In junior college, I knew I could play higher. In D1, I knew I could play in the league. When I got here, I knew I could start, make a lot of plays, have a good career.
“I’m 30 years old. I don’t even count the first three years when I didn’t play at all. This is my ninth year, but take away three. It’s only my sixth year, really. I feel like my body doesn’t have a lot of wear and tear from the first four years of my career. I feel great. I’ve played at a high level for the last four years, and I don’t see why I can’t keep improving. I continue to have that mentality, not just with football, with everything. Just keep chipping away, everything will work out.”Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.