Anyone who watched attentively will tell you Rob Ninkovich was a terrific high school football player. He just wasn’t cut from the mold of a five-star recruit coming out of Lincoln-Way Central in 2001-02.
He was judged too small to play on the defensive line in the collegiate ranks. He was deemed inadequate for a tryout at tight end or fullback. And there was some question whether he would make it academically, too.
So, now a decade later, who would’ve figured Ninkovich would be cast in a spotlight role on Sunday Night football, his most recent breakout performance beamed into living rooms via high-definition television across America? Yes, that was our ‘Ninko’ darting around like a Patriot warrior, No. 50 on the Game Day flip card, No. 1 in our hearts.
The young man described as a resurrected castoff by Sam Farmer in his Monday, Nov. 14, column in the Los Angeles Times delivered a Pro Bowl-worthy performance in the New England Patriots’ 37-16 victory over the New York Jets.
Ninkovich (6-2, 255) intercepted two passes thrown by the Jets’ Mark Sanchez and returned one 18 yards for a touchdown. He was given an opportunity to play outside linebacker in a rebuilt Patriot defense. He was determined to make an impact—and not just as a long-snapper playing on special teams.
He did that.
“He stepped up big for us,” New England nose tackle Vince Wolfork said in Farmer’s column.
‘Ninko’ has been stepping up since that summer his father took him to work as an ironworker. He climbed up 19 stories, in fact, laboring to hang beams on a Chicago construction site. As the story goes, Ninkovich’s father was trying to impress upon his son the importance of completing his education.
He earned All-America honors playing football at Joliet Junior College and later garnered second-team All-Big Ten recognition after transferring to Purdue. He was picked by the New Orleans Saints in the fifth round of the 2006 NFL Draft. Then, he was waived, not once, but four times before signing as a free agent with the Patriots in August of 2009.
Look at him now. He’s basking in five-star reviews.