He’s a top tackler

Patriots’ Ninkovich is still all about his goals

By Monique Walker
Globe Staff / January 10, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH — Scribbled inside school folders, the daily reminders Rob Ninkovich recorded as a high school athlete could be read by anyone. Mike Ninkovich peeked inside his son’s folder one day and saw phrases such as “stay strong’’ and “be mentally tough’’ written in bold.

For a high schooler with dreams of becoming a college football player and eventually reaching the NFL, Ninkovich focused on the attributes he hoped would carry him through each level. His process not only helped him carry out his plan, it also has helped the linebacker rejuvenate his career as he wrapped up the 2010 regular season with the Patriots, playing in all 16 games for the first time in his five-year career.

At each stage of Ninkovich’s career, he has needed someone to take a chance on him. From Joliet (Ill.) Junior College to Purdue University to the NFL, Ninkovich set goals and waited for the results.

“He was always completely focused on what he wanted to achieve,’’ Mike Ninkovich said.

While growing up in a suburb southwest of Chicago, Ninkovich told his mother he wanted to play in the NFL. He even went as far as to sign a contract with his older sister, Laura, to prove his determination. Ninkovich had an intensity that caused elementary school teachers to politely tell Deborah Ninkovich her son was a “little too competitive’’ in gym class.

That competitiveness may have kept Ninkovich pushing toward his NFL goal when others might have to quit. He was selected by the Saints in the fifth round of the 2006 draft. He tore his anterior cruciate ligament three weeks into his rookie season and spent the next couple of years trying to earn a spot with any team.

The Saints waived Ninkovich and he landed with the Dolphins, splitting time between their practice squad and 53-man roster. He even returned to the Saints briefly, convinced being a long snapper was his best chance to land with an NFL team. During his visits home, he dragged his father to the local high school to “call balls and strikes’’ as Ninkovich snapped balls over and over. Yet the Saints cut him in July 2009.

In between contracts and teams, Ninkovich gave himself a timeline to pursue his dream.

“I had a few years and decided right now was my opportunity to try and play football,’’ said Ninkovich, who is 26. “After a certain age, you don’t really have that chance and I know I had a good five years to get in and try and continue to get my name out there, do well, get some film, and try to get an opportunity.’’

Sticking with football wasn’t a difficult choice, it was the waiting that left Ninkovich frustrated.

“When you get cut a few times, you never really question your ability,’’ he said. “I always knew I could play and I had the talent to play, but I didn’t know if I was going to be given an opportunity to show my ability. I was starting to doubt my chances and if I would get a shot, or a true look from somebody.’’

The Patriots gave Ninkovich that shot in August 2009 in training camp. There weren’t many expectations for Ninkovich, Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. But the linebacker earned himself a spot on the team.

“We had an extra spot, so we brought him in and he started playing and took advantage of his opportunities,’’ Belichick said. “[He] played well in the kicking game, contributed on defense in all three downs . . . and on fourth down and special teams.

“So, he carved out a special role for himself and Rob’s gotten better over the two years that he’s been here in terms of understanding our system and playing with good technique. When we first got him, it was kind of a last-minute thing — get a guy in here for training camp and all that.

“There wasn’t really a lot of preparation put into the signing other than by Nick [Caserio] and Jason Licht and our personnel department; they got who they felt was the best player available at that position, and I’d say they found a pretty good one.’’

The comings and goings of a player trying to make the NFL often can feel like an emotional roller coaster, not only for the player but his family, as Mike and Deborah Ninkovich discovered.

“We told him all you can do is your best,’’ Deborah Ninkovich said. “If you can look yourself in the mirror and say, ‘I gave it my all,’ then whatever happens, happens and that’s it. It’s gratifying to see he’s had success this year. There’s so much that goes on, and a lot of it is luck.’’

When Ninkovich finally signed with the Patriots, he called his father to share the news.

“I went from this little gully to wanting to jump up and down, I was so excited for him,’’ Mike Ninkovich said.

Ninkovich played mostly special teams in 2009 but appeared in 15 games. This season was his best yet. He earned a starting spot and had 58 tackles, 4 sacks, 2 interceptions, and 3 fumble recoveries. His performance even prompted Dolphins running back Ricky Williams to use Ninkovich’s success in New England as an example of the struggles in Miami. Williams said Ninkovich was thriving in a positive environment.

Ninkovich did not want to address Williams’s comments, but he said from the moment he joined the Patriots he could sense he was “coming to an organization where they respected what you do on the field and they give you opportunities on the field.’’

As the Patriots prepare for Sunday’s playoff game against the Jets, Ninkovich said he savors every opportunity because he knows how quickly the entire experience could change.

“I don’t think I’ll ever be comfortable,’’ he said. “Every year, even this year, I was trying the best I could so I didn’t get cut. It’s a terrible feeling to have because it’s always in the back of your head. Everything I do, I’m not satisfied. I look at everything and I don’t care what I’ve done well, I only care about what I’ve done wrong.

“In the NFL, things aren’t always perfect, but you have to do the best you can to improve it week to week.’’

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