FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Tom Brady slid quietly into a small room off the visiting locker room Thursday morning at Gillette Stadium.
A day earlier, when a case of the flu sent the New England Patriots' star quarterback home from the facility and forced him to miss practice, mass hysteria ensued. Headlines shrieked the news, and there was rampant speculation that he might not be 100 percent against the Denver Broncos' defense in Sunday's AFC Championship Game.
Forty minutes later, wearing beige pants and a gray zipper-top, Brady emerged after a massage.
"Feeling fine," he said, smiling curiously at the seven-person television crew. "What are you guys up to?"
The crew was shooting a feature on Rob Ninkovich, the Patriots' unlikely defensive captain, and how his upbringing and circuitous journey to the league made him iron-tough.
"Is he?" Brady said, mischievously.
Yes, if you consider the difficult path Ninkovich has taken.
During one summer in college, he was an ironworker, pulling a 12-hour night shift, building a bridge while swinging from a basket 75 feet in the air over a river off I-57 in Illinois.
"Oh," Brady said. "Very cool. You have fun with that."
He turned and walked back toward the locker room, intent on devouring more film of the Broncos, and we can now report, according to teammates, he ultimately practiced in a firm and crisp manner. Later, Vince Wilfork and Ninkovich himself stopped by to weigh in on Ninkovich's long, strange trip that brought him to the place he has apparently always belonged.
Five years ago, Ninkovich arrived in New England for a training camp tryout. This past September, he signed a lucrative, long-term contract. In October, he was named a team captain.
"I've come a very long way since I got here," Ninkovich said. "I think that just by leading by example and doing the right things and working hard -- that's being a leader."
For a special-teams guy who didn't start a game his first year in New England (2009), Ninkovich -- with apologies to cornerback Aqib Talib and safety Devin McCourty -- has almost certainly become the most versatile and indispensable Patriots defender heading into the team's biggest game of the season. Earlier this season, New England lost three defensive starters in three weeks -- tackles Tommy Kelly and Wilfork, and linebacker Jerod Mayo -- costing them a staggering total of 36 missed games.
Most teams would have been done by now, but the Patriots are somehow surviving with the 6-foot-2, 260-pound Ninkovich filling a number of roles. He's lined up mostly at defensive end, but also at linebacker, his old spot. He turns 30 the day before the Super Bowl, but finished the regular season with a career-high 91 tackles, 8 sacks, 2 forced fumbles and 2 fumble recoveries.
"He's the one guy that you can always depend on if it's in special teams or if it's snapping the ball," Wilfork said. "Is he playing linebacker, or is he playing defensive end? . . . He brings so much to the table, just seeing him work every day, seeing him learn, seeing him teach."
Here's the fast-forward version of Rob Ninkovich, "This is Your Life":
He grew up in Illinois and played two seasons for Joliet Junior College, then moved on to Purdue, where they envisioned him as a tight end. He, on the other hand, imagined he was a defensive player. In a 2004 game against Notre Dame, Ninkovich had a touchdown catch (from Boilermakers QB Kyle Orton) -- and two sacks. Still, he started only as a senior.
In 2006, Ninkovich was drafted in the fifth round by the New Orleans Saints, No. 135 overall -- the only team, he told his mother going in, that seemed like a bad fit. He appeared in all of three games before a knee injury sent him to the injured reserve list. The Saints cut him before the 2007 season opener. Miami claimed him off waivers, and he appeared in five games in 2007 and part of 2008 before the Dolphins released him that November. The Saints, naturally, picked him up again, but cut him for the last time in July 2009, when he didn't make the transition to long-snapper that Saints coach Sean Peyton had insisted on.
"Thank you. Thank you," Wilfork said. "He's trying to get better every day. The new drills he does ... people just look at him and say, 'What are you doing?' He'll explain it to them, next thing you know he has three or four guys doing it with him."
Ninkovich traces his work ethic to his father, Mike, who's still an ironworker.
"He's been doing it a long time," said Ninkovich, who wears his dad's St. Christopher's medal every day in the offseason. "A couple years ago, he showed me all the hours he's worked, like 72,000 hours. He feels like if he's not working, he's losing money. My whole life, my dad was working Saturdays, Sundays, getting overtime. Seven days a week.
"That's just the way he is."
That's just the way Rob Ninkovich is, too.
"My wife might call me a little crazy," he said. "Just trying to be a perfectionist about being a professional."
He's proud of what he's accomplished in New England, the second-youngest team in the league. In his own way, he's helping to rebuild something from the ground up.
"There's something that goes into having nothing and building something that's going to last forever," he said. "I remember driving around with my dad and [him saying], 'I built that in 1982.'
"That's something they can brag about. An ironworker builds beautiful buildings that wouldn't be here if it wasn't for guys like me.
"I think that's pretty sweet."