FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — New England Patriots defensive stalwart Rob Ninkovich capped his 11-year NFL career by announcing his retirement Sunday after the team’s morning practice at Gillette Stadium.
Since joining the Patriots in 2009, Ninkovich had proven to be one of the team’s most durable and dependable players.
A defensive end and linebacker, he was a two-time co-captain and won two Super Bowls with New England. But he didn’t take the easiest route to get there.
A fifth-round pick by the New Orleans Saints in 2006, he was waived four times by the Saints and Miami Dolphins before joining the Patriots just before the start of the 2009 season — after spending that offseason trying to make the Saints as a long snapper.
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Before joining New England, he had appeared in just eight games over three seasons.
With New England he missed just one game, in 2009, before last season, when he started the season with a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on the use of performance-enhancing substances. From 2011-2015, he started every regular-season game.
He played in 131 games with 101 starts, with 425 tackles, 46 sacks, and five interceptions, including one he returned for a touchdown in 2011. He also appeared in 17 playoff games, all with New England, making 16 starts, with 64 total tackles and six sacks.
Ninkovich had been absent since training camp started on Thursday, for what the team called personal reasons.
“I wanted to make sure I made the right choice,” Ninkovich said. “That was talking with my family, and looking at the pros and cons. And coming in as a guy that had been cut a bunch, I’ve had injuries, I’ve had knee injuries that were close to being career-ending.
“It’s lasted me 11 years so I’m happy I’ve had that durability there. There’s a time where that durability doesn’t last as long. I’m just happy that I was able to play for this organization as long as I have.
“It wasn’t an easy decision. After 11 seasons, and 19 seasons total playing football, it’s time for me to walk away. I look forward to the next phase of my life.”
Ninkovich made the announcement surrounded by Patriots owner Robert Kraft, coach Bill Belichick and the coaching staff, and many teammates including quarterback Tom Brady, tight end Rob Gronkowski, captain Matthew Slater, safety Devin McCourty, defensive tackle Alan Branch, linebacker Dont’a Hightower and receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola.
Belichick and Kraft spoke before Ninkovich made his announcement.
“He’s a really special guy,” Belichick said. “I’ve never coached a more unselfish player, and I’ve coached a lot of them.
“There’s so many big plays that he made through the course of his career.”
Ninkovich began his career in New England as an unheralded addition. He developed into a highly respected teammate and mentor to younger players. Ninkovich choked up several times during his delivery, including when he spoke directly to Belichick.
“Coach, I gave you everything I had. I hope it was enough,” Ninkovich said. “I love this game. Thank you.”
Ninkovich had been expected to be a valuable part of the Patriots’ defense again this season.
New England’s depth chart includes Trey Flowers, who led the team with seven sacks last season, newcomer Kony Ealy, acquired in a trade with Carolina, Geneo Grissom and rookies Derek Rivers and Deatrich Wise Jr.
“Got to love a guy like Ninko, you know, cause maybe half the guys here might not know who he is but he has had a great career,” Giants linebacker Jonathan Casillas said.
“He won two Super Bowls in New England. If I am not mistaken early in his career he bounced around a little bit and been cut a couple of times. But when he was on New England he was uncuttable.
“He is a great teammate to have. He is a pro of all pros. I was with him for half a year in New England, but I have known him for years. Congratulations to him and his career.”
AP Sports Writer Tom Canavan in East Rutherford, N.J. contributed.
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