Patriots’ Rob Ninkovich has better title in mind than ‘birthday boy’
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PHOENIX — Rob Ninkovich has had a lot of fun birthdays, from parties as a boy in Blue Island to a slightly more adult 30th bash in New Orleans last year. But his birthday Sunday surely will take the proverbial cake: He’s starting Super Bowl XLIX for the New England Patriots.
‘‘I’m going to go out there and fly around,’’ the defensive end said this week, ‘‘and try to make it the best one of my life.’’
That he’s even here is remarkable enough. After playing at Lincoln-Way Central, he attended Joliet Junior College. After two star seasons at Purdue — he was moved from tight end to defensive end after one practice — he was picked in the fifth round by the New Orleans Saints.
Over the next three years, he played in eight games, was waived four times and even tried his hand, unsuccessfully, at long snapper.
Now? He’s the heart of the Patriots’ defense and has been for years.
Switching from defensive end to linebacker and back again, he hasn’t missed a game since Nov. 22, 2009, three months after signing with the team. That’s the longest active streak for a pass rusher.
Not since Hall of Famer Andre Tippett did it 18 years ago has a Patriots player had eight sacks in three consecutive years, as Ninkovich accomplished this season.
And since 2010, only the great J.J. Watt can top Ninkovich’s 13 fumble recoveries, which includes a 15-yard score against the Bears this year.
On Sunday, he’ll put the Bill Belichick mantra of ‘‘Do Your Job’’ to the test, focusing on running back Marshawn Lynch and, if he decides to keep the ball on the read-option, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.
‘‘I’m just trying to capitalize on my opportunity,’’ Ninkovich said of his return to the Super Bowl after three years. ‘‘It’s a hard road to get here, and I’m excited to be here, excited to have another opportunity and go out there and fly around on my teammates.’’
Ninkovich inherited No. 50 from Patriots cult hero Mike Vrabel and still watches the movie ‘‘Rudy’’ for inspiration. Both are apt comparisons.
‘‘He rushes the passer — he covers guys well,’’ defensive end Chandler Jones said. ‘‘He’s even a special-teamer. Having a guy like Ninkovich that’s very versatile is great to have on your team.’’
Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said he and Ninkovich have ‘‘been around each other long enough where there’s certain things or certain ways I can tweak him a little bit, where I know he can perform in a certain way.’’
Ninkovich played linebacker when the Patriots featured more 3-4 looks — he totaled 10½ sacks in 2010 and 2011 on the strong side — and moved to defensive end in 2012.
‘‘You’ve got to be strong to play down in those trenches,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s something you take pride in because I’ve been doing it for a long time now. Some people say you’re undersized, but if you can jack up somebody at 260 and still be fast, why not?’’
One year ago, former Bears general manager Phil Emery referenced Ninkovich’s versatility when painting the ideal picture of end-turned-linebacker Shea McClellin. The Bears’ likely transition to a 3-4 defense under coordinator Vic Fangio means they’ll need a different skill set — frankly, players more like the soon-to-be 31-year-old Ninkovich.
In the 3-4, Ninkovich said, inside linebackers need to be at least 250 pounds so they can take on guards head-on because there are no double-teams. A good 3-4 needs stellar defensive ends playing on the outside shoulders of the offensive tackles.
‘‘It’s like all the different things that you need to do, I’ve done that,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s a great thing to have that experience of playing every position.’’
And Sunday — his birthday — he’ll be on the biggest stage.