HOUSTON — Rob Ninkovich caught himself. The New England Patriots outside linebacker and Lincoln-Way Central grad was talking this week about appreciating his third Super Bowl appearance Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons when he made it sound like his career might be wrapping up soon.
“It doesn’t get old,” Ninkovich said. “You realize this is a short time in your life that you can play professional sports. It’s not like a doctor or lawyer [who] can practice for 30 to 40 years. I have a short window of opportunity that doesn’t last forever, and I’m at the back side of that shelf life.”
How far on the back side?
“I’m not gonna say,” he said. “I’m just trying to enjoy it right now.”
It’s fair to wonder if the New Lenox native is nearing retirement. He turned 33 on Wednesday, is at the end of a one-year deal and is finishing one of his most emotionally draining seasons. After playing in 116 consecutive games with the Patriots, he was suspended by the NFL for the first four this season after failing a performance-enhancing drug test — which he said was because of a store-bought nutritional supplement.
“When your character is tested and you come out on the other end of that in a good way, it builds your character,” he said.
When Ninkovich returned, he focused on what he could control.
“Get back to what you do best,” he said. “And that’s focus on getting better as a football player, getting into work early, staying late, work as hard as you possibly can.”
He started all but one regular-season game after his suspension, recording four sacks.
Yet Ninkovich, who had a sack in each of his previous two Super Bowls, still thinks of himself as the underdog.
“I was just a little guy from New Lenox, Illinois, with dreams to play in the NFL,” he said.
Those dreams looked tenuous for years. The New Orleans Saints drafted the Purdue alum in the fifth round in 2006 but cut him twice. He still calls his rookie year, complicated by a knee injury, the toughest of his career.
In 2007 and 2008, he made only five appearances for the Miami Dolphins. After one year as a Patriots reserve, he earned 10 starts in 2010. He started every game from 2011 to 2015, totaling 37 sacks, before the suspension.
Ninkovich fits the Patriots’ unique defensive design, which puts an emphasis on versatility for its hybrid edge-rusher spots.
“I’ve been doubted many times just to what I can do in the NFL,” he said. “If I had listened to people on the outside, I probably wouldn’t have played this long. You really have to have confidence in yourself. I’ve surprised a lot of people, but I’ve never surprised myself. And that’s just through hard work, determination and not taking no for an answer.”
Defensive end Chris Long gravitated to Ninkovich when he joined the Patriots this season.
“[He’s] a guy that I’ve always respected as a player,” Long said. “I didn’t really know him. To me, he welcomed me with open arms, as far as helping me learn the team, learn the Patriot Way, if you will. I’ve always just respected his career. We’ve had similar careers in terms of productivity.”
Ninkovich’s plan is to enjoy Sunday and not worry about the future until later.
“I enjoy every moment,” he said. “I really appreciate it. My fifth year in the league, I said, ‘Oh, I got six or seven more years of this.’ Now I’d better enjoy every moment because I don’t have six or seven more years.”
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