Rob Ninkovich sacks Russell Wilson in Super Bowl XLIX. (Photos by David Silverman / New England Patriots)
Rob Ninkovich awoke on Super Bowl Sunday to an alert on his iPhone: “You’re old, Rob!”
It was his 31st birthday, and he’d set up the automatic alert years ago. Hours later, he was still old, but he was something else, too: A Super Bowl champion.
It had been 10 years since the Patriots won a Super Bowl, coming oh-so-close a couple times in the ensuing decade. And it’d also been years since the Patriots’ defense had been the focal point of the team. But this season was different. This Patriots team had sealed two previous victories (against Oakland and Baltimore) with interceptions late in the game. The defense had stepped up long before Malcolm Butler muscled his way to infamy with a play that was so memorable it’s simply known, for now, as The Play.
Ninkovich will never forget The Play. Among the 11 players on the field for the Patriots, two were undrafted, four more had been cut, and two players had suffered career-threatening injuries. Ninkovich was one of the guys who’d been cut. And, while all of New England’s fans had been sent into a panic a minute earlier thanks to a miraculous Seattle catch, he and his teammates drew on that same focus and guile that helped them overcome adversity before. Ninkovich was only focused on what the play call would be.
“I was thinking that they were going to do something to move the quarterback in the pocket, like a dash. Or some type of [play with Russell] Wilson rolling to his right. In those situations, quarterbacks can throw the ball away if they don’t see what they like,” Ninkovich recalls. “He stayed in the pocket, the ball came out really quick, and so I engaged with the tackle, and once I saw the ball release, I flipped back around to see where the ball was going. I saw Malcolm jump in front of it and catch it. I just threw my arms in the air in complete excitement and disbelief that this just happened. That we just did this. It was awesome.”
Cue the Duck Boats. But none of it happens if not for Ninkovich making two defensive stops earlier in the second half. The first was a stuff of Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch on third-and-1: “I looked at the tackle’s eyes, and I saw him looking down from me, so I knew he wasn’t coming to block me. … I just went right for Lynch, and I was going to tackle him no matter what. If he had the ball or didn’t have the ball.” He followed that up a few drives later with a sack of Wilson on third down that set the stage for the first of Tom Brady’s two fourth-quarter touchdown throws.
An hour later, Ninkovich embraced his wife and 19-month-old daughter as they arrived on the field to celebrate. As his daughter played with confetti, his wife, full of emotion, said to a teary Ninkovich: “You did it, babe.”
As Ninkovich was still soaking up the victory the next day, he saw a far friendlier message on his phone than the previous day. It was from another relative who had been on the field to celebrate: “I had the time of my life,” his dad wrote. “My chest could explode right now. I’m so proud of you.”