Rob Ninkovich sat in Cam Cameron’s office, frustrated and with a bone to pick.
2007 was a difficult year for the second year player from Purdue, as it was for Cameron and all of the 1-15 Miami Dolphins, so Ninkovich wanted to know why he was on the roster, but not allowed to contribute as he was inactive for all but four games.
And Cameron, who was about to get the axe from Dolphins management, pulled no punches with Ninkovich. “I don’t think you have the skills.”
Bet Cameron would like to have that one back, along with letting Wes Welker escape his losing culture, trading the eventual four-time All Pro to New England prior to that 2007 season…so it’s no small wonder why Cameron isn’t coaching right now – he may know X’s and O’s, but he apparently doesn’t know much about a player’s heart.
But forget about Cameron. He is but a blip on the Dolphins’ radar that couldn’t evaluate talent, for which Bill Belichick is probably eternally grateful…and Belichick could have thanked him in person this Sunday had he not been fired a month ago from his position as the Baltimore Ravens’ offensive coordinator.
Again, small wonder.
Rob Ninkovich was drafted in the 5th round by the New Orleans Saints in 2006, drawing raves and climbing the depth chart in camp and played three regular season games before a knee injury ended his rookie campaign. The following season he again injured his knee, this time in training camp, and was subsequently waived.
After his disappointing tenure with Miami, he returned to the Saints briefly after being signed off the Dolphins’ practice squad in December of 2008. Saints’ coach Sean Payton told him that his only future in the NFL was as a long snapper, so Ninkovich knew his days were numbered when the Saints signed another long snapper – and he was subsequently released.
His life turning into a revolving door between hope and frustration, Ninkovich signed on with the Patriots during that 2009 camp and the rest, as they say, is part of Patriots’ lore.
Wearing number 50 and bearing somewhat of a resemblance, Ninkovich is often compared to former Patriot linebacker Mike Vrabel- which is fair, given their versatility and relentless motors – but their journey to the NFL took decidedly different paths.
Vrabel was highly recruited out of high school and ended up accepting a scholarship to Ohio State where he starred for 4 years before being selected in the 3rd round of the 1997 draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers, playing his professional ball not all that far from his home in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio.
In contrast, nobody came to visit Ninkovich. He thought that maybe he could walk on to a college program, but his grades in high school were – well, let’s just say he wasn’t named valedictorian – so it looked more and more like he was going to be continuing the family tradition of becoming an Iron Worker.
But that was when he got the call that changed the course of his life. NJCAA Hall of Fame coach Bob MacDougall, who was coaching at Joliet Junior College at the time, invited Ninkovich to come and play ball for him – to round out his skills and bring up his grades so he could get into a four-year University.
“He played tight end in high school and was a terrific athlete, so I knew he was destined for something great,” MacDougall says about his most recognizable former player. “He had great ‘stick-to-itiveness.’ He’s a great example of what junior college is all about.”
And he needed those traits, because Junior College is like the bush leagues – no scholarships, equipment at a premium and had to use his own transportation to get to games.
“Joliet made me appreciate everything.” Said Ninkovich, now in his 4th year with New England, “I had my high school pads on, had to buy my cleats, had one pair of gloves for the full season. Drove to practice every day, drove to games. It really just made me hungrier to continue.”
To make sure Rob stayed on the path out of the Iron Works trade, his father put him smack in the middle of it in the break between his freshman and sophomore years, and whether it was being suspended off of a bridge or setting Iron Beams up 20 stories in a downtown Chicago building, his father, Mike, had just one purpose in mind: That his Son finish college.
“It was kind of scary,” Ninkovich said of working that high off the ground. “But it opened my eyes that I didn’t want to be an ironworker the rest of my life.”
Two years and one National Junior Collge Championship later, Ninkovich transferred to Purdue, earning second team all Big Ten honors, an invitation to the East / West Shrine Game and, ultimately, a shot at playing professional football.
All Ninkovich has done this season – his fourth with the Patriots - is record a team high 8 sacks, forced 5 fumbles and recovered 4 on the season and registered an interception last week against the Texans.
He is under contact with the Patriots through next season, but as versatile as the 6 year veteran is – so versatile in fact that he rarely comes off the field and can play defensive end and outside linebacker, rush the passer or drop into coverage – it would behoove the Patriots’ family to get “Nink” signed and wrapped up with a shiny new contract, though Ninkovich isn’t worried about that at the moment…he has bigger fish – um, birds – to fry this Sunday, with another American Football Conference Championship at stake.
So right now all he’s thinking about is the Baltimore Ravens – Ray Rice and Joe Flacco, but no Cam Cameron – which is too bad, really.
It would have been poetic justice that Cameron’s charges become victims of Rob Ninkovich’s determination and work ethic.
“Anybody who looks at my story, just work hard and once you get your chance, make the most of it.”
And with the New England Patriots, he is doing just that.