FOXBORO — Rob Ninkovich recognized his last shot to remain in the NFL occurred with the Patriots in 2009. And he turned that into an impressively productive eight-year run that culminated yesterday with his emotional retirement announcement at Gillette Stadium.
Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady highlighted the dozens of Patriots who crammed into the media workroom to watch Ninkovich’s send-off. One player gazed around the room and whispered to a teammate, “This is why we do this.”
Ninkovich was humbled by their support.
“It’s awesome,” Ninkovich said. “To think I was the 80th roster guy for a tryout in 2009, and to be here where I’m at right now, speaking with everybody, just to have this experience, to have my teammates here. We have a great relationship. I have a great relationship with the organization. I’m going to continue to have that relationship and stick around.”
Ninkovich was truly the last player on the 80-man roster when he signed early in training camp in 2009. He caught a late flight to New England and got very little sleep before his workout, which he knew he needed to pass to remain employed to even earn the chance to be a longshot to make the team.
Even that was a stretch. He had suffered a devastating knee injury as a rookie with the Saints in 2006, and was released for the fourth time in 2009, which was shortly after the Saints told him he’d only remain in the NFL as a long snapper.
Ninkovich said he needed to do “something special” in his first practice, and he recalled beating left tackle Matt Light in his first three reps. Belichick even put him on that day’s highlight package in the film room.
“I’m telling you, 2009 was my last shot,” Ninkovich said. “When I was released in 2009 from the Saints as a long snapper, I hadn’t played in three years, and I had no tape. In the NFL, if you’re out a year, it’s hard to get back in. I had the injury my rookie year, had the injury my second year that I was released and didn’t play in Miami. Their wonderful 1-15 team, I couldn’t play on that team. It was one of those things where I had to wait on my next opportunity. The windows of opportunity, one is open, boom, it closed on me and that hurt. You’ve got to be patient, be patient, be patient. And then I got cut and came here, and it opened up and I hit it. It’s definitely been a blessing to come here and play as long as I have.”
Belichick spoke for about six minutes, and Kraft took the podium for a few more before playing a highlight video. Midway through the video, there was a clip of Belichick calling Ninkovich a “Jet killer” in the locker room.
It was all part of Ninkovich’s accomplishments as an underdog who found a way to rack up 46 sacks, 10 forced fumbles, 14 fumble recoveries and five interceptions while playing a significant role for a pair of Super Bowl champions.
“Like a lot of guys,” Belichick said, “he came in here very unheralded — Brady, Malcolm Butler, guys like that, and the guy he replaced, No. 50, Mike Vrabel — didn’t come in with a lot of fanfare but just came in, worked hard and been a very, very versatile player for us.
“You’ve earned every single thing that you’ve gotten. … You earned every single thing, all those sacks, all those forced fumbles, all those plays.”
Ninkovich contemplated retirement throughout the offseason, and the team was well aware of his internal debate. Through it all, he prepared as though he’d play, but he made the final decision last week to call it a career. Ninkovich didn’t feel as though his body was prepared to go through a full season again.
Ninkovich acknowledged a host of mentors, and he choked up when he thanked a tearful Matt Patricia. Brady beamed when Ninkovich turned his attention in that direction. And then Ninkovich cried himself when he spoke to Belichick.
“Coach, I gave you everything I had,” Ninkovich said. “I hope it was enough. I love this game. Thank you.”