New England linebacker Rob Ninkovic battled his way from junior college, to Purdue and a failed NFL attempt in New Orleans. Now, he is a member of the Patriots' regular rotation.
People stopped on the crowded sidewalks to stare at the tiny figure working way, way up on the towering blue glass building they call the “JW.”
The lone figure had been dispatched to fix a tiny wrinkle on the gargantuan SUPER BOWL XLVI logo pasted within the curvature of the majestic skyscraper.
He looked like an ant in a parking lot. His task looked scary. New England linebacker Rob Ninkovich could relate.
After Ninkovich turned 18, his dad helped getting a job doing what he did as an ironworker in Chicago. One of the jobs was hanging beams on skyscrapers, way, way up there.
Until recently, football people scoffed at the notion Ninkovich could handle a job way up here in the Super Bowl.
He had played for two years at Joliet Junior College when he enrolled at Purdue and did some decent work. In one of his early games, against Notre Dame, he sacked Brady Quinn twice. The next year, he made second team All-Big Ten.
The Saints drafted him in the fifth round but soon concluded he wasn’t that good. He recalls the message from head coach Sean Payton:
“He told me I was a long snapper. I didn’t think he was seeing me in the right way as a football player.
“But he told me that was my only chance of being on the team, so I just went out and snapped a ton of balls.
“At the end of the day, it didn’t work out there. It was just my fate to come to New England.”
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick saw him in a different light. The Patriots signed him on Aug. 2, 2009, and he soon found his way into the linebacker rotation.
He worked his way into a starting job in 2010. He even got his “15 minutes of fame” in a Monday night game against the Dolphins, making two interceptions and a sack.
By 2011, his career had taken hold, and he was making splashes again. In a game against the Jets, he intercepted Mark Sanchez twice and brought back one of the picks for a touchdown.
His iron-worker dad is beaming with pride. The kid who wasn’t good enough is starting in a Super Bowl.
Even he used to wonder.
“If someone had told me I had been a starter in 2009,” Ninkovich said, “I don’t know if I would have believed him.”
It’s a long way from Joliet Junior College. This is a slightly bigger deal than the time when he helped that team win the NJCAA national title.
“Coming out of high school, I wasn’t the biggest guy,” Ninkovich said. “I had to put on some weight, develop and mature.
“Junior college made you appreciate everything. I had my high school pads. I had to buy my own cleats. I drove to practice every day, and to the games.
“That made me hungrier.”
The longest snap
To say the Super Bowl easily could come down to a chip-shot field goal recalls a recent comment from Cleveland kicker Phil Dawson.
“I hate it when anybody calls any field goal a chip shot.”
The Browns found out the hard way how the variables that go into putting three points in the bag can bite you. In their case, it was a bad snap on a 22-yard try that cost them a game against St. Louis.
Later, a bad snap from Ryan Pontbriand at Cincinnati cost him his job.
Pontbriand was a veteran who had been in two Pro Bowls, and the pressure got to him. Imagine how much pressure will be on 23-year-old rookie Danny Aiken Sunday.
He didn’t even want to talk about what will be happening between his ears when he is the Patriots’ long snapper in the Super Bowl.
“You don’t want to get caught up in what you don’t know yet,” he said.
He is preparing scientifically.
“Treat it like any other game,” he said. “Stay in tune to your technique. You make thousands of practice snaps every week. You have to trust you will do it in the game.”
Aiken followed Pontbriand when he was in college, at Virginia, and watched films of his work. There was a ripple among the league’s long snappers when Pontbriand was cut after that game in Cincinnati.
“You feel for the guy,” Aiken said. “He’s a great snapper and always has been. He’s the type of snapper you want to be like.”
The slot machines
Both the Giants and the Patriots hit the jackpot with receivers who can frazzle a defense out of the slot.
New England’s Wes Welker, undrafted out of Texas Tech in 2004, has been doing it for a while.
Victor Cruz, undrafted out of UMass in 2010, was a bolt out of the blue for the Giants in 2011.
Classic wideout Calvin Johnson led the NFL with 1,681 yards during the regular season. That once-overlooked twosome of Welker and Cruz were No. 2 and No. 3, with 1,569 and 1,536 yards, respectively.
The 30-year-old vet, Welker, shed a little insight on the kid, Cruz:
“He and Eli Manning seem to be on the same page, as far as doing that 10-yard downhill out of the slot.
“He sets it up by faking that route and then bending it to the middle. I tell our defensive backs to watch for it, because he’s going to do that, or he’s going to wrap it in there by faking that 10-yarder.”
Pro scouts didn’t know quite what to make of the players in Texas Tech’s pinball offense. Quarterback Kliff Kingsbury passed and passed some more.
Welker was part of Ohio State’s national championship season of 2002, on the losing side. Behind Maurice Clarett (175 rushing yards, three TDs), Ohio State took a 38-7 lead over Texas Tech into the fourth quarter.
Welker caught touchdown passes of 34 yards and 37 yards from Kingsbury in the final quarter of a 45-21 loss. Then he got lost for a while.
“It’s kind of crazy to be here,” Welker said. “It’s been a long road.”
• Chad Ochocinco, preparing for his first Super Bowl as a Patriot after 10 years with the Bengals, made it to the final four of the 2010 Dancing With the Stars competition.
New teammate Wes Welker wasn’t impressed.
“Being an athlete, you’d think he’d make it to the top two or three, right?” Welker said.
It’s a down cycle for Ochocinco. He finished sixth on the Patriots with 276 receiving yards in 2011.
• Giants defensive end Justin Tuck says New England’s Tom Brady cracked a little in the previous Super Bowl between the teams because “we had a lot of hits on him.”
Tuck has since noticed that it might not even be a matter of hits, although those would be nice on Sunday.
“Just keep getting people around him, so he can’t step up,” Tuck said. “He gets a little frustrated when he has to go to his second or third receivers.”
• Long-time Patriots running back Kevin Faulk was asked why this year’s Patriots seem less tense as the 2007 team that lost in the Super Bowl.
“I’m not going to say we’re loose,” he said. “We’re not as mature.”
He went on to explain this year’s team is younger.
• Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who married Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen in 2009, dropped in a reference to a child he fathered with actress Bridget Moynahan.
He did so in describing how he keeps the big game in perspective.
“I have a 4 1/2-year-old who is much more interested in the Millenium Falcon and his Lego sets than football,” he said.
Brady and Bundchen had his second son in 2009.
“My 2-year-old is definitely going to be a little athlete,” he said.