Sunday, July 30, 2017

Ninkovich To Call it Quits

The heart and soul of the Patriots defense, Rob Ninkovich will announce his retirement on Sunday
When a professional football player's skill level starts to decline, it's usually a gradual regression in which he and the team can adjust the player's role and extend his career a season or two - so when it happens abruptly right before our eyes, it's a powerful thing to witness.

2016 was a rough year for New England Patriots' linebacker Rob Ninkovich, who tore a triceps muscle towards the beginning of training camp, then got pinched on a drug test from which he missed four games for violation of the league's substance abuse policy - and when he did return, the triceps were still an issue to the point that he was having trouble disengaging from blockers.

Never was that as evident as in the Super Bowl when Ninkovich couldn't disengage and got hung up in traffic on the Falcons' first score, then was in coverage on the back in the flat on the Falcons' fourth and final score, Tevin Coleman easily beating Ninkovich to the pylon.  The pre-2016 Ninkovich probably would have made those plays.

Certainly, a torn triceps muscle is something that takes from eight-to-twelve weeks to recover from, but he was back playing in six, and since it is the muscle primarily responsible for bending and straightening of the elbow, he likely never regained adequate strength in the arm, putting him at a disadvantage.

Long the soul of the Patriots' defense, Ninkovich is walking away from the game on Sunday, and whether the motivation for doing so was residual injury or declining athleticism, he didn't make clear - but it doesn't matter anyway because whatever his reasons, Ninkovich has had a career that deserves celebration and respect.

Picked up off of the New Orleans Saints' scrap heap before the 2009 season, the Purdue product went from long snapper to linebacker to defensive end in Foxborough, twice along the way leading the defense in sacks (2012 and 2014) and consistently setting the strong-side edge for the past eight seasons and even contributing as a situational pass rusher coming off of suspension and injury last season...

...which would have been his role this year as well, if he even made the team, which is something that he hinted at during a recent charity event.

"I'm pretty much in 'bonus time'" Ninkovich said, acknowledging the fact that at 33 years of age, many of his former Patriots teammates, including now Texans' defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel, had already been replaced on the New England depth chart. "You start running around, lifting weights and see how you feel.  Training camp is the same way.  If you're looking like a peg leg out there, it's pretty clear cut."

2016 was the second year in a row that Ninkovich had suffered a debilitating injury, as a massive blood clot in his leg buffered his on-field success in 2015.

"It was a very big blood clot in my leg which turned into a hole, a big cavernous three-inch hole, and they had to pack in with gauze every day and I had to wear this thing over it, and I had to take anti-biotics" Ninkovich offered, "I still have the clot in my leg right now.  I hope it doesn't travel."

So with tearing his triceps, running around with a massive blood clot and with Father Time kicking his butt at every turn, it's no wonder Ninkovich is choosing to walk away from the game, while he can still walk - but he hasn't been blind-sided by the regression, nor is he sweating leaving the game.

"I know my job is going to be taken.  I understand that." Ninkovich said recently, adding, "I don't lose sleep over it because I've had a successful career."

Indeed he has - a career that can and should be celebrated.

The son of an iron worker, his father took him on jobs with him during the summer before his sophomore year at Joliet Junior College, where Ninkovich found himself suspended nineteen stories above Chicago, hanging iron beams.  Years later, he told tale of his father purposely working him to exhaustion on the scaffolding, motivating him to stay in college even if the big boys didn't offer him a scholarship.

He wanted more for Rob.  He wanted to give his son a taste of what his life would probably be without a college education - and after he got that education, if he still wanted to hang beams, well, it was then his decision to make.

He played football and wrestled in high school, but no division one schools came calling, so he went to Joliet, paying for school with the grand-a-week job he held during the summer - and the extra money came in handy as the school's budget didn't allow for much of anything beyond pads, and sometimes the players had to car pool or find rides to get to road games.

Joliet won the NJCAA National Championship during his time, and Ninkovich was named a third-team All American, but it took multiple phone calls to the head coach at Purdue University to convince him that he was worthy of a scholarship - and receive a scholarship he finally did, as a tight end, but ended up as an outside linebacker and long snapper for the Boilermakers.

The rest is history: drafted by the Saints, tearing his ACL in training camp, released and picked up by the Dolphins and placed on their practice squad before the Saints poached him and made him their long snapper, then released the following offseason.

That's when the Patriots came calling.

Ninkovich personified everything that the Patriots' Way embodies - physically and mentally tough, carries himself with pride and professionalism, excels as a mentor but never quits learning and, until the beginning of last season, was always available, which head ball coach Bill Belichick treasures most in his players.

Eight years, 470 tackles, 46 sacks, six conference championship games, three Super Bowls and two rings later, Ninkovich leaves New England on top of the football world, going out on his own terms - retiring at an age that his father and fellow beam hangers of yesterday could only dream of.

His plans?  Only he knows for sure - but one thing is for certain: He's earned the respect of anyone connect to the game of football and any fan who watched him play, earning a banner hanging off the rafters at Gillette Stadium and one that is about to be unfurled...

...and when given the choice as to whether hang championship banners or hanging the beams that support them, it's pretty clear that he made the right choice.


No comments:

Post a Comment