The Patriots’ most recent season was a little different for Rob Ninkovich.
“I was changing diapers, taking my girl to school every day, and watching as a fan,” Ninkovich told Boston.com. “It was good.”
Ninkovich, who retired — or as he likes to say, “graduated” — from the NFL in July 2017, played 11 seasons of professional football before calling it quits last year. There were whispers throughout the season he might make a comeback, but Ninkovich said he’s happy with his decision to walk away.
“I definitely had my moments where I was like, ‘I could still do that,’ but I also would go to a game and be like, ‘I’m good. I’m already did that,'” he said. “There’s two sides to everything, I guess. You can’t play forever, so I figured if I was going to be smart about it, I’d rather get out of here early than a year too late.”
Fear of injury and time away from his family were two determining factors in influencing Ninkovich’s next move. He said he began contemplating retirement as early as 2013, when he and his wife, Paige, welcomed their first child.
“Honestly, I think the second I had my first child, it was the start of me thinking, like, ‘OK, I can’t play this forever,'” he said. “It’s a violent sport, and it’s not really good for you as far as long-term health, so I was definitely like, ‘OK, I’m going to get out of this thing before I’m limping too bad or I can’t play with my kids.'”
Ninkovich and his wife now have two children, a five-year-old daughter and a two-year-old son. He said the couple has already begun discussing whether they should let their son play football, while fully acknowledging the odds of their son playing in the NFL are “very, very low.” Either way, Ninkovich — as someone who took his first formal snap when he was 15 years old — didn’t seem too keen on letting his son start playing at the peewee level. “The contact that is given to kids when they’re eight, nine, 10, 11, 12 years old can be troubling,” he said.
“I definitely would rather my son play golf or be a computer engineer or a musician because, you know, honestly, football — or any physical sport you have to use your body — it’s a lovely, beautiful blessing, but at the same time, you can’t do it forever,” he said. “Would I have rather had the skills to be a surgeon or a doctor? Probably, because I can do it until I was 70 years old. Football, it’s like a short span in your life. You’re 32 years old and then it’s over.”
The transition from the NFL to retirement can be challenging for some, as athletes navigate “normalcy” and search to find a way to spend their time without the all-consuming sport that once dominated their life.
“It’s like you had a skill that very few people had, like very few people in the world can say they did it at a high level, and then you’re just normal,” Ninkovich said. “I think that’s some of the hard things that guys deal with. It’s like I just was elite. Now? I cut grass. Me, personally, I kind of enjoy the fact I had [my career] and now I’m normal.”
Though it was difficult to balance fatherhood while playing professional football, Ninkovich said the game also taught him valuable life lessons, like the importance of work ethic and goal-setting, which he hopes to share with his children. For him, one of the biggest takeaways from The Patriot Way was: “Everything you put into something is what you get out of it.”
“If you don’t put 100 percent effort into something, you’re not going to get the full effect out of it, like you’re not going to get that full return back,” he said. “If you really put yourself out there and you work at something, you’re going to get better and you’re going to be better for it. Not everything is going to be perfect, that’s life, but if you’re constantly striving to be good, you’re always going to be that much better.”
“If you fail at it, then you’ve learned a certain skill, a certain way of doing something,” he continued. “But if you don’t try, you’re never going to learn at all.”
Ninkovich said that “all-in” mentality is one of the common bonds he’s noticed among the most successful people he’s encountered in life.
“I’ve never heard of one person say, ‘I just kind of half-assed it and I made it,'” he said. “I think that the Patriot Way is a perfect example of getting a group of guys together that are trying to maximize their God-given talent or potential.”
“I don’t think enough people try to strive to maximize their potential,” he continued. “I think people are just in general are complacent. Like if they’re in a comfortable position, they’re comfortable. Only a very small percentage of people are really working. The Patriots, they’re always trying to strive to be better to be better. It’s not normal to have 12 years of consistent success.”
To those that have questioned The Patriot Way and how much “fun” the team has? He poses the question: “What is fun?”
“I feel like I hear ‘fun’ in a new generation, like ‘I just want fun,'” he said. “Well, what’s fun? If you don’t work at it, no matter what, you’re eventually not going to have fun. You’re not going to have any money and you’re not going to have a job, so that’s not fun. I think there’s just a different perception of fun.”
“They say, ‘Well, you can win and have fun.’ Well, I don’t think you can lose and have fun,” he continued. “If you’re losing and having fun, then I don’t think you are in it for the right reasons. You don’t have that mentality . . . Is fun getting a group of guys together, playing around, losing, and not really achieving something special? I wouldn’t want you on my team or I wouldn’t want you as a business partner if we were losing and you were enjoying yourself.”
Ninkovich said he enjoyed his career as a Patriot. He will be returning to the sidelines this upcoming season as a broadcast voice for home games.