Purdue defensive end Rob Ninkovich made the leap from Joliet Junior College to Purdue University with two years to make NFL scouts take notice of him. And with two other talented defensive ends already established at Purdue by the time he arrived, it wasn't going to be easy. But Ninkovich simply took advantage of every opportunity he got as a third-down pass-rushing specialist who also rotated in throughout the games. He kept making plays so it would become increasingly difficult for the coaches to keep him out of the starting lineup.
"I got eight sacks in my first season only getting maybe 30 plays a game," Ninkovich said.
He was named the starter with just five games remaining in his senior year, but he had already made his presence known to opponents and NFL scouts by then.
"Just by watching the film and watching the game people would ask me why I wasn't starting and I would say ‘I'm not the type of player who would question the coach.' I just go out and play whenever I get the opportunity, and make plays when I can," he said.
Did he ever. He finished his senior year with eight more sacks for a total of 16 over two seasons. That's the highest total in history for a two-year player at Purdue. Ninkovich has ingrained a simple motto that started in his senior year into all that he does in life. He wears a wristband that says, "Make It Happen." And he pretty much wears it around the clock as a reminder.
"I still have it on, actually," he said. "It's pretty beat up and old. Last year, Coach Tiller brought all the seniors into a room. We wanted to have a motto – something that we could all make and put on our wrists, so that we could look at it, see it every day. We came up with ‘Make It Happen' and everyone on the team got a wristband.
"I keep it on because…this is for everything. ‘Make It Happen' – you get up in the morning, and you look at it, and you say, ‘Go lift weights, go run, go prepare yourself for next season.' It reminds me everyday what it took to get where I am, and what it's gonna take to keep me pursuing my goals for my future years to come."
And even though he's gained most of his recognition due to his pass rushing prowess, Ninkovich is also recognized as a guy who's always finding the player with the ball.
"If you've ever watched a tape of me playing, if the ball's down the field, and the guy's already on the ground, tackled, I'll just run past everybody – just run past the pile. It's ingrained in my mind," he said. "Always run to the ball, always run to the ball. Even on a run, I'm always running to the ball.
"I've made a lot of plays where I've been upfield like it's a pass, and a screen or draw or run…and I turn around and run back to the line of scrimmage. The running back will cut back right to me, and I'll make the tackle for no gain."
Ninkovich will tell you that football is engrained in his soul. And while talking to him, you can hear the passion resonating from a place deep inside him.
"When I'm out on the field I'm all into the game, everything about me is into the game. Anything could be going on around me and I wouldn't even notice it because I'm so focused on what I'm doing out there on the field," he said. "I don't feel myself getting tired. When I put my hand down and it's ready for the snap to go, I'm not tired anymore.
"It's a weird feeling because I know that every play I'm going to go from the snap of the ball to when the whistle has blown … I've always been that way."
And ask him to sum up Rob Ninkovich as a person, and he can tell you exactly who he is without a second of hesitation.
"Number one, I'm a football player. I'm very serious about what I do on the field. I'm a great student of the game, and I like to play very hard," he said.
"Number two, the way I play the game almost defines me as a person. I'm very relentless in what I do, no matter what it is. If I'm in the backyard playing with my nephew, I'm competitive and I'm going to beat him – just because. It's just something I've always done.
"I'm a good person as well. I've got a good head on my shoulders. I'm a good teammate, and I'd be able to help a team out in any way possible."
Ninkovich can't wait for his opportunity. He doesn't care who picks him or how they want to use him. Defensive end, special teams, linebacker. One team even talked to him about playing tight end.
Rob Ninkovich just wants to keep playing and competing. It's what he wakes up every day thinking about as he looks down at the wristband that reminds him to "Make It Happen."
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