BOSTON (CBS) – When he first came to the New England Patriots in 2009, Rob Ninkovich was the 53rd man on the roster.
The then-linebacker had played sparingly for New Orleans and Miami over his first two pro seasons, and was looking for a new home following his second release by the Saints. With just seven NFL games under his belt, Bill Belichick came calling, and Ninkovich was eager to make the most of what could have been his last opportunity in the pro football.
Now, four-plus seasons later, Ninkovich is a key cog on the Patriots defense, making life miserable for opposing quarterbacks off the line and falling on footballs at an alarming rate. He just signed a three-year extension with New England last week, just another sign that he has in fact made it in his journey to play professional football.
“For me to think about where I was to where I am now, it’s pretty awesome,” Ninkovich told WBZ-TV’s Steve Burton in an interview that will air on Sunday’s Patriots GameDay. “It’s something that I try to tell younger kids all the time. Whatever you have passion-wise in your life – not everyone is going to be the professional football or baseball player that they want to be when they’re a kid – but if they have a dream and a goal, it’s going to get you to a better place in life.
“For me, I knew I was going to put every effort into being the best football player I could be and wherever it took me it would take me. If I didn’t get that far, at least I knew that I had put everything into it, which would make me a better person in the long run,” he said. “When it’s all said and done and I look back on my career, I’ll be completely happy with everything that happened.”
“I have no regrets,” he said confidently. “I feel like there are two types of pain; the pain of sacrifice and the pain of regret. I feel like regret never goes away, and sacrifice is just temporary.”
Ninkovich moved to defensive end in 2012 and raised his game to a whole other level. Last season, he recorded a career-high eight sacks, five forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries. He leads the NFL in fumble recoveries since 2010, something he takes great pride in.
“It’s a great stat just to show everyone that if you’re around the ball, things happen,” he said. “I always say let me get to the ball, and if it pops out I’ll be right there to scoop it up.”
Ninkovich always seems to be in the right place at the right time, but says that is by design. And there is a reason he always seems to be the one to fall on the ball, and when it’s in his grasp it never gets loose. It’s an art that he has down pat, thanks to a lot of practice and a near-flawless technique.
“Another thing is when guys see the ball, they don’t attack it the proper way,” he said “They just jump and it hits them in the face and bounces off. You have to jump on that thing and cradle it, put it in your stomach and curl up.”
“We practice that all the time, we really do; falling on the ball,” he said. “They have the NFL Follies tapes from years ago, you see the one guy jump on it with his chest and it pops out, then the next guy jumps on it and it hits him in the head and it just keeps going. It’s the one guy that actually grabs it with his hands and pulls it into his body that recovers it. A lot of that goes down to the technique of getting on the ball.”
TALE OF THE TAPE: Patriots vs. Falcons
Ninkovich already has one fumble recovery this season, stripping New York Jets running back Chris Ivory in Week 2. He’s eager to take the field on Sunday against the Falcons, and hoping that number increases soon.
Given his track record and the strong play of the Patriots’ defense, it probably won’t be too long until you see him pouncing on another loose football.
Tune in to Steve Burton’s 1-on1 with Patriots’ defensive end Rob Ninkovich Sunday morning at 11:30 a.m. on WBZ-TV’s Patriots GameDay!