FOXBORO, Mass. — How much respect do the New England Patriots have for Rob Ninkovich? One glance at his retirement news conference should tell you all you need to know.
The crowd on hand for Ninkovich’s announcement Sunday afternoon included nearly the entirety of New England’s 90-man roster, plus most of the coaching staff.
The media workroom was so packed with Patriots that a number of them, including head coach Bill Belichick, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and more than a half-dozen players, sat on the floor while Ninkovich delivered his farewell address.
Ninkovich spoke for more than 15 minutes, tracing his path from an eighth grader too chubby to play Pop Warner, to a bottom-of-the-roster player in New Orleans and Miami to, finally, a two-time Super Bowl champion in New England.
The 33-year-old defensive end beamed from ear to ear when discussing his Patriots teammates — Tom Brady, Devin McCourty, Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater were among those who received shout-outs — and teared up as he thanked Patricia and Belichick.
“Coach, I gave you everything I had,” Ninkovich said to Belichick, his head coach for his entire Patriots tenure. “I hope it was enough. I love this game. Thank you.”
After wrapping up, Ninkovich shared a hug with every player in attendance, including a long embrace with Brady that included a kiss on the cheek.
Speaking on the practice field before the ceremony, several Patriots players shared their memories of playing alongside Ninkovich.
“Rob stepped in huge for me when I got here,” said linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who was traded to New England last season. “I can’t say enough good things about him. I’m blessed to be around him for the three months that I (was), and then on to the (spring workouts). He passed a lot of knowledge to me, and I’m very grateful that I got the opportunity to play with such a great player.”
Third-year pro Trey Flowers, who now becomes the de facto leader of New England’s defensive end group, called Ninkovich a role model.
“(He was) definitely a great player here,” Flowers said. “He had a great career doing what he did. … Just watching his approach to the game, watching how he carries himself as far as being a pro, I definitely learned a lot.”
Linebacker Elandon Roberts, a Patriots rookie last season, echoed those sentiments.
“When Nink was here, he definitely (set the tone) being a long-time veteran in the league,” Roberts said. “He knew how to be a pro. Learning from him was definitely a great experience.”
Former Patriots defensive end Chris Long, now with the Philadelphia Eagles, reached out on Instagram, calling Ninkovich “one of the more underrated players I can remember in our generation.”
Thankful to spend a year with @nink50 before he rode off into the sunset on top!!! 46 Career sacks, buncha edges set, buncha picks, clutch game changing plays, 2x world champ. One of the more underrated players I can remember in our generation, and an all time great teammate. The worst play of his career was that baby pull of vodka at the parade. Other than that, you're a legend!!! 😂 Love you brother! Enjoy the next chapter! #NinkoDay #Champion
In all, Ninkovich played eight seasons with the Patriots, plus three more with the Dolphins and Saints. He started 94 consecutive games at linebacker and defensive end for New England from 2010 to 2016, a streak that ended when he was suspended for the first four games of last season.
During his time with the Patriots, Ninkovich racked up 454 tackles, 46 sacks, 10 forced fumbles, 14 fumble recoveries and five interceptions. He was a mainstay on a New England team that won two Super Bowls and reached another, and his impact will not be soon forgotten by his now-former teammates.
“If anyone knows about Patriot defense,” Van Noy said, “they think of that guy.”
Thumbnail photo via Stew Milne/USA TODAY Sports Images
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