Rob Ninkovich remembers well the day New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton told him his only hope at an NFL career was to become a long snapper.
"I just went out and snapped a ton of balls," Ninkovich said.
Born in Blue Island, Ill., Ninkovich grew up in New Lenox and played football for Purdue. Now he's headed to Sunday's Super Bowl, but he won't be there as a long snapper.
The junior college product who worked construction before beginning his football career says he's ready to tackle some Giants.
"Coming in in 2009, if someone had told me I was going to be the starting linebacker for the Patriots in two years, I don't know if I would have believed them," Ninkovich said.
Ninkovich credits Purdue with helping him mature from a college back-up to an NFL starter. He learned the game's basic principals in high school, but didn't find his fit until moving from offensive guard to defense. He enrolled at Joliet Junior College because he wanted time to develop physically, then signed as a tight end at Purdue.
"On the first day of two-a-days, I asked to play the first practice as a tight end and the second as a defensive end," Ninkovich said.
It worked. Ninkovich grew from second-stringer to NFL draft pick, being selected by the Saints in the fifth round. He tried snapping at Payton's request, but eventually went back to defense and left New Orleans. He joined the Saints in 2009.
"I think they gave me the opportunity and the way they play their defense, they really are an 'edge' team," Ninkovich said of the Patriots. "You have to have bigger guys on the outside as linebackers who set the edge. Bill (Belichick) has always preached setting the edge and stopping the run.
"Coming in here, I was able to do that."
Ninkovich has had a tough time whittling down the list of friends and family who will be inside Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday. While his large extended family will be cheering on TV, only his mom, dad, sister, nephew and fiance will get tickets to the game.
"Once you give a ticket to a cousin, everybody else wants one, too," Ninkovich said. "I can't open the flood gates."