After Rob Ninkovich announced his retirement from the NFL on Sunday, both Patriots coach Bill Belichick and owner Robert Kraft lauded the 33-year-old linebacker for an 11-year career that saw him win a pair of Super Bowls.
"Rob is one of the most unselfish players I've ever coached," Belichick said Sunday. "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."
Ninkovich played every linebacker position and defensive end and was even the backup long snapper. But what Belichick loved the most out of Ninkovich, originally a fifth-round pick from Purdue by the Saints in the 2006 NFL Draft, was his toughness.
"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," Belichick said. "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."
After Belichick spoke at length about Ninkovich as a special player and "really special guy," it was Kraft's turn to heap praise on Ninkovich during what Belichick described as a day of mixed emotions.
"He's got a lot of great attributes, and one of the best, I think, is his first name," Kraft joked "Secondly, as [the] coach and I have described, he was a great player for us for nearly a decade. But, equally important to me, he was a great ambassador in our community and always represented us in a very classy way and always was available to do whatever our people asked him, interacting with fans of all ages.
"But one attribute stands out above all the others. I think he's probably had the greatest beard in franchise history. In a region that truly likes and respects playoff beards, he possessed one of the best -- sorry to all the others here -- that [Boston] has ever seen. His beard put most of those hockey playoff beards to shame. He had a kind of a Yukon Cornelius look going."
Ninkovich played in 131 NFL games with 101 starts and recorded 425 total tackles, 46 sacks, five interceptions, including one he returned for a touchdown, with 22 passes defensed, 10 forced fumbles, 14 fumble recoveries and 28 special teams tackles. He also played in 17 postseason games with 16 starts and finished with 64 total tackles, six sacks, one interception, seven passes defensed, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.
"There's something to be said about going out on top," Ninkovich said on Sunday. "I was honest with myself. You have to be honest with yourself. I feel like athletes sometimes get away from that because they don't want to believe what they're telling themselves, but I knew that my time was probably close.
"I love it here, and I'm going to miss it."