FOXBORO, Mass. — Bill Belichick tends to hold back his praise for a player until they retire. It came pouring out of the New England Patriots head coach Sunday afternoon at defensive end Rob Ninkovich’s retirement ceremony.
Belichick led off the news conference by speaking for six minutes about Ninkovich’s best moments and accomplishments. With countless teammates, coaches and media members present in the standing-room only news conference, Belichick then sat on the floor and smiled as he watched Ninkovich give his retirement speech. The Patriots pushed back a staff meeting to attend the news conference.
Here’s what Belichick had to say about Ninkovich.
“Alright, I’m honored to start this off because we had a staff meeting coming up,” Belichick said. “But it’s with really mixed emotions that I stand here today to congratulate Rob on just a tremendous, tremendous football and personal career and his personal contributions to the Patriots at the same time. There’s certainly a degree of sadness in the way that we’ll miss him, although he’ll be around and be part of the team. (He’s) just a special, really special guy.
“My relationship with Rob dates all the way back to Purdue when we scouted him coming out in the ’06 draft, right? He was a little bit of a ‘Was he a linebacker? Was he a defensive end?’ Well it turned out he was both and we missed him the first time around but we finally got it right. He’s Croatian so I knew he was tough. There was never any doubt about that. All Croatians are tough.
“But after New Orleans, Miami, back to New Orleans, we’re sitting there in training camp in 2009 lacking a little depth at the outside linebacker position. Nick (Caserio) said ‘There’s a guy, Rob, he should be on a roster, he should be in a camp and he’s available so let’s get him.’ Really, it’s just history after that. Rob came in and did a great job for us in the kicking game, started playing on defense the following year in 2010, was a regular player for us. (He) had the big game Monday night against Miami — two interceptions, fumble, made a very athletic play, made a great interception and we saw his coverage skill. It kind of just went on from there. Just year after year of production — sacks, forced fumbles, recovered fumbles. (He had) 24 forced and recovered fumbles in his career, the five interceptions – two against Miami, two against the Jets — then, of course, the Denver play where he got (Peyton) Manning on a crossing pattern, the strip sack against (Mark) Sanchez in overtime against the Jets. I mean we just go on and on and on. I mean there are so many big plays he made through the course of his career.
“But Rob is one of the most unselfish players I’ve ever coached. Like a lot of guys, he came in here very unheralded; (Tom) Brady, Malcolm Butler, guys like that and the guy he replaced, No. 50 Mike Vrabel. (He) didn’t come in with a lot of fanfare but just came in and worked hard and became a very, very versatile player for us. He played defensive end, inside linebacker, outside linebacker, all the kicking game, was our backup snapper. As a head coach or as a special teams coach, Scott (O’Brien) and Joe (Judge) will tell you that, things like that, just knowing you have a good backup long snapper really lets you sleep at night. Those are the kind of things that if it comes up in a game it’s critical. It might never come up but if it does — but that’s the kind of security that Rob gave us on everything, all the different positions defensively and in the kicking game. His versatility was really exceptional which is a tribute to his intelligence, his preparation and his overall skill set. Rob’s got very good playing strength. Maybe he got some of that when he was tossing those steel beams around in Chicago with his dad. But (he) worked very hard in the weight room, had very good playing strength, ran well, athletic and, like I said, all day tough and versatile. (He was a) team captain, one of the real leaders of the team. You can see the testament of everybody here what Rob means to all of us and what he’s meant to all of us.
“Personally, (I) just can’t thank you enough for your contributions to the team (and) to the organization. I haven’t had a — never coached a more unselfish player and I’ve coached a lot of them but you go right up in there in that top echelon group. It was always about the team. It was always about how Rob could help somebody else. ‘What do you need me to do, coach? Do you need me to play here, play there, do something else? I can do this. I’ll snap, I’ll cover kicks, I’ll play linebacker, I’ll rush, I’ll cover. Whatever you need me to do.’ That was really very important to us in the last three years really starting with kind of that Denver game in ’14 where we became much more of a — we put a lot of flexibility into our defense with the linebackers rushing more and our defensive ends dropping more and Rob was really a huge, huge part of that transition.
“So with a great deal of personal gratitude I thank you (and) Paige for your great support, performance, loyalty, dedication to this organization (and) our football team. You’ve had a tremendous career. You’ve earned every single thing that you’ve gotten. Nobody gave you anything; nobody had worked harder for it. As a coach I’m extremely proud of what you’ve accomplished and you earned every single thing — all those sacks, all those forced fumbles, all those tackles, all those big plays. You got there with hard work and perseverance, dedication, preparation. All the things that we preach for our program, Rob epitomizes.
“Congratulations on a tremendous career. It’s been an honor to coach you. Thank you for your contributions to the Patriots and to me personally. Thank you.”
Thumbnail photo via Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports Images
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