HEAD COACH BILL BELICHICK
"Alright, I'm honored to start this off because we had a staff meeting coming up. But it's with really mixed emotions that I stand here today to congratulate Rob [Ninkovich] on just a tremendous, tremendous football and personal career and his personal contributions to the Patriots at the same time. There's certainly a degree of sadness in the way that we'll miss him, although he'll be around and be part of the team. [He's] just a special, really special guy.
"My relationship with Rob dates all the way back to Purdue when we scouted him coming out in the '06 draft, right? He was a little bit of a 'Was he a linebacker? Was he a defensive end?' Well it turned out he was both and we missed him the first time around but we finally got it right. He's Croatian so I knew he was tough. There was never any doubt about that. All Croatians are tough.
"But after New Orleans, Miami, back to New Orleans, we're sitting there in training camp in 2009 lacking a little depth at the outside linebacker position. Nick [Caserio] said 'There's a guy, Rob, he should be on a roster, he should be in a camp and he's available so let's get him.' Really, it's just history after that. Rob came in and did a great job for us in the kicking game, started playing on defense the following year in 2010, was a regular player for us. [He] had the big game Monday night against Miami - two interceptions, fumble, made a very athletic play, made a great interception and we saw his coverage skill. It kind of just went on from there. Just year after year of production - sacks, forced fumbles, recovered fumbles. [He had] twenty-four forced and recovered fumbles in his career, the five interceptions - two against Miami, two against the Jets - then, of course, the Denver play where he got [Peyton] Manning on a crossing pattern, the strip sack against [Mark] Sanchez in overtime against the Jets. I mean we just go on and on and on. I mean there are so many big plays he made through the course of his career.
"But Rob is one of the most unselfish players I've ever coached. Like a lot of guys, he came in here very unheralded; [Tom] Brady, Malcolm Butler, guys like that and the guy he replaced, No. 50 Mike Vrabel. [He] didn't come in with a lot of fanfare but just came in and worked hard and became a very, very versatile player for us. He played defensive end, inside linebacker, outside linebacker, all the kicking game, was our backup snapper. As a head coach or as a special teams coach, Scott [O'Brien] and Joe [Judge] will tell you that, things like that, just knowing you have a good backup long snapper really lets you sleep at night. Those are the kind of things that if it comes up in a game it's critical. It might never come up but if it does - but that's the kind of security that Rob gave us on everything, all the different positions defensively and in the kicking game. His versatility was really exceptional which is a tribute to his intelligence, his preparation and his overall skill set. Rob's got very good playing strength. Maybe he got some of that when he was tossing those steel beams around in Chicago with his dad. But [he] worked very hard in the weight room, had very good playing strength, ran well, athletic and, like I said, all day tough and versatile. [He was a] team captain, one of the real leaders of the team. You can see the testament of everybody here what Rob means to all of us and what he's meant to all of us.
"Personally, [I] just can't thank you enough for your contributions to the team [and] to the organization. I haven't had a - never coached a more unselfish player and I've coached a lot of them but you go right up in there in that top echelon group. It was always about the team. It was always about how Rob could help somebody else. 'What do you need me to do, coach? Do you need me to play here, play there, do something else? I can do this. I'll snap, I'll cover kicks, I'll play linebacker, I'll rush, I'll cover. Whatever you need me to do.' That was really very important to us in the last three years really starting with kind of that Denver game in '14 where we became much more of a - we put a lot of flexibility into our defense with the linebackers rushing more and our defensive ends dropping more and Rob was really a huge, huge part of that transition.
"So with a great deal of personal gratitude I thank you [and] Paige for your great support, performance, loyalty, dedication to this organization [and] our football team. You've had a tremendous career. You've earned every single thing that you've gotten. Nobody gave you anything; nobody had worked harder for it. As a coach I'm extremely proud of what you've accomplished and you earned every single thing - all those sacks, all those forced fumbles, all those tackles, all those big plays. You got there with hard work and perseverance, dedication, preparation. All the things that we preach for our program, Rob epitomizes.
"Congratulations on a tremendous career. It's been an honor to coach you. Thank you for your contributions to the Patriots and to me personally. Thank you."
CHAIRMAN AND CEO, ROBERT KRAFT
"Coach did an admirable job speaking only as he can. As a Patriots fan, it was easy to like Rob Ninkovich. New Englanders love rooting for the underdog - the blue-collar overachiever who hustles on every play and does the most to maximize their full potential. And Rob was truly that guy.
"He arrived in camp in 2009 as an unheralded veteran free agent. And, as Bill mentioned, he had been released by two different teams four times and he had appeared just in eight games in three years. But, he found the opportunity here in New England. In his first season with us, he appeared in 15 games. By 2010, he had earned a starting role as an outside linebacker. Over the next 7 seasons, he was our most dependable, versatile and consistent defensive performer.
"He started 94 consecutive games at linebacker and defensive end over a six year period. He became the first Patriots player since Andre Tippett to record eight sacks in three consecutive seasons. He was one of the most productive, albeit unassuming players in the league. That is truly unusual in today's marketplace, and we all recognize what a special quality that is in you.
"It might surprise some to know - and I think even Rob, I asked him how many fumble recoveries he had and he said 12 - but it actually was 14 in the last seven seasons, which is the most in the NFL. In his 8 seasons with the Patriots, he recorded 46 sacks, the 14 fumbles and five interceptions. I recently saw a note that said over the last 20 years, the only other NFL players to reach those exact same levels were Jared Allen, Julius Peppers and Jason Taylor. That's pretty good company, my friend.
"He's got a lot of great attributes, and one of the best, I think, is his first name. Secondly, as Coach and I have described, he was a great player for us for nearly a decade. But, equally important to me, he was a great ambassador in our community and always represented us in a very classy way and always was available to do whatever our people asked him, interacting with fans of all ages.
"But one attribute stands out above all the others. I think he's probably had the greatest beard in franchise history. In a region that truly likes and respects playoff beards, he possessed one of the best - sorry to all the others here - that [Boston] has ever seen. His beard put most of those hockey playoff beards to shame. He had a kind of a Yukon Cornelius look going.
"So, we're thankful for all of Rob's countless contributions over the past eight seasons, which helped propel the Patriots to six consecutive AFC Championship games and two Super Bowl victories. Before I welcome Rob, I would like to also say hi to Paige and the beautiful little Olivia for coming and being part of this today. We wanted to show you a video with a few of his highlights."