HOUSTON — Spend enough time around any group of people, and it’s easy to notice certain relationships. Inside the Patriots locker room, one of the most obvious is the friendship between defensive ends Chris Long and Rob Ninkovich.
Their lockers are next to each other, and they often come and go in tandem. They tease each other in interviews and banter on Twitter and Instagram. For the NFL’s “My Cause, My Cleats” initiative in Week 13, Long got an extra pair of custom-designed cleats representing his Waterboys charity for Ninkovich to wear in their game against the Rams.
Ask either one about the other separately, and he’ll say that their friendship has meant a lot. Long, who is new to the Patriots this year, said that Ninkovich will “pick you up any day there’s a lull in energy.”
Try to get them going together, however, and their class-clown routines begin. Neither can go more than a few seconds without slipping into fits of giggles and chop-busting that make you wonder whether defensive coordinator Matt Patricia has ever had to separate the two during a film review.
During a recent slow afternoon in the locker room, the two sat next to each other, talking and laughing. Asked to share the story of how they became such fast friends, Long paused for a moment. He grinned, then feigned seriousness.
“When we leave this building, we hate each other,” he said.
Ninkovich started to smile but stopped himself. He was determined to play along.
“Rob is inconsiderate,” Long said.
Ninkovich sat up straight and frowned. He explained the root cause of their supposed beef: He borrowed some of Long’s clothes and hadn’t returned them.
It seemed as though Ninkovich was about to issue a sheepish apology when he looked around and realized he was missing something of his own.
“Wait, where are my sweatpants at?” he asked.
“I have them,” Long answered.
“Oh,” Ninkovich said. He looked at the gray warmups Long was wearing. “They’re on.”
At that point, both players cracked up, satisfied with their routine. Once he stopped laughing, Long offered his hypothesis on how the two became friends: “I mean, we spend 12 hours a day together. We didn’t have a choice.”
Ninkovich offered another theory: “We’re older. We have a lot more wrinkles than those guys,” he said, gesturing into the middle of the locker room. “We’re just old dudes.”
Ninkovich is 32 years old and Long is 31, and they have more than just age in common. Both are married with young children (Ninkovich has a 2-year-old daughter named Olivia and Long’s son Waylon turns 1 in March). Both have had long, steady careers as NFL defensive ends.
They explained, however, that sharing a position actually caused tension between them.
“We met, and I was like, ‘Man I hope he doesn’t take any of my reps,’ ” Ninkovich said. “Just being honest.”
“And that wasn’t going to happen,” Long said. “This is Mr. Patriot right here.”
Ninkovich continued without acknowledging Long’s compliment.
“So I tried to be a nice guy, reach out to him, give him the old open-arm welcome,” he said, “but I really was just, like, screw this guy, I hope he screws up. I hope he comes here and doesn’t do well.”
“It was all fake,” Long confirmed.
The two have gotten over any professional jealousy that existed.
Asked how their relationship stacks up against the more famous Patriot bromance between Julian Edelman and Tom Brady, Long and Ninkovich said that sharing a position actually proves that their friendship is authentic.
“Oh, we’re way better fr—,” Long started, then trailed off. He turned to Ninkovich and said, “Are we better friends?”
Ninkovich nodded enthusiastically.
“I don’t think they hang out,” he said. “Ever. Outside of this building.”
“I don’t think they hang out, yeah,” Long said.
“I think Julian just knows that all his receptions come from Tom, so he better be really good friends with him,” Ninkovich said. “Like, I’m not going to help [Long] get a sack.”
“No,” Long said. “We have to get our own sacks.”
“If there were somebody else out there who was, like, ‘Hey, if you were friends with me I’d give you more sacks,’ I’d be, like, hey, you’re my best friend,” Ninkovich said. “I think Tom just . . .”
“Tolerates,” Long jumped in.
“Yeah,” Ninkovich said. “Tolerates Julian.”
They were literally completing each others’ sentences, which they claim happens quite often.
“He’s smarter than me,” Ninkovich said.
“That’s probably true,” Long responded.
“He’s pretty good with his wit, he’s very witty,” Ninkovich said. “He can write better than me. When I’m trying to think of something to say, he’ll help me out. If I need to say something to my wife, then maybe I’ll be, like, ‘Hey, Chris what’s a good thing to say?’ ”
“ ‘How do I say this?’ ” Long said, making his voice sound goofy. “So, basically, I dictate his entire life.”
The way they tell it, they started eating meals together in the cafeteria only because they got out of position meetings at the same time.
“You’re forced to eat with each other just based off of the time that you get in the building,” Ninkovich said.
Long was new in town, however, so he was happy to have a buddy.
“Sometimes he goes to dinner with me outside of here,” Long said. “We’ve done that.”
“Once,” Ninkovich said.
Long claimed that they’ve hung out more than that. He looked at Ninkovich.
“Did you have a nice time?” he asked.
“I had a great time,” Ninkovich said. “I had a blast.”
Though the two insist that they’re better friends than Brady and Edelman, they don’t like the term “bromance.”
“We’re not ready for that label,” Long said. “We’re more of, like, people that tolerate each other because we’re going to be at work together so much.”
“You’ve got to have some type of a friend,” Ninkovich said. “It’s like when you were in school. If you had no friends, you’d be lonely. You’d have no one to talk to. So I might as well have someone to talk to.”
Nora Princiotti can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @NoraPrinciotti.