ATLANTA – In three press conferences this week leading up to the Super Bowl, Rob Gronkowski spoke for more than 150 minutes, fielding hundreds of questions.
At no point during those answers did he give any indication of what his future holds. Will Sunday’s game be the final one of the Amherst native’s illustrious NFL career? He’s not saying – no matter how many times he’s asked.
“Yes, no, maybe so,” the New England Patriots’ tight end said during one of his media sessions this week. “I mean, I’ve been considering this big game this Sunday. That’s all I’m really focused on – for real.”
If Super Bowl LIII against the Los Angeles Rams is in fact Gronkowski’s final game, it will cap a career destined for a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Over nine years, Gronkowski has built a compelling case to be considered the best tight end of all time. Five Super Bowl appearances (Gronkowski missed Super Bowl LI against Atlanta), potentially three championships, five Pro Bowls and four first-team All-Pro selections headline the lengthy list of his accomplishments. All those honors, however, have come with a price. The list of Gronkowski’s injuries is just as long.
It starts with three back surgeries and continues with four forearm surgeries. It continues with multiple concussions, a torn ACL and MCL, a bruised lung, a high-ankle sprain and countless other bumps and bruises. His chiseled, 6-foot-6, 268-pound frame isn’t made of steel. The injuries have taken a toll, mentally and physically.
“The season is a grind,” Gronkowski said this week. “It's up and down. I'm not going to lie and sit here and say every week is the best. Not at all. You go up, you go down. You can take some serious hits.
“Imagine getting hit all the time and trying to be where you want to be every day in life. It's tough. It's difficult. I mean to take hits to the thigh, take hits to your head – abusing your body isn't what your brain wants.”
At times, it’s seemed like the game has stopped being fun.
“When your body is abused, it can bring down your mood. You've got to be able to deal with that, too, throughout the season. You've got to be able to deal with that going into games. No one realizes that. Everyone expects us players to be wide awake every single day, and it's just like, 'Yo, I just took 50 hits to my head.’
“Then the next day everyone wants you to be up. They want practice full speed. The next week they want the game to be full speed, but they don't understand sometimes what players are going through, with their bodies, their minds.”
That’s why the retirement rumors aren’t going away, even though Gronkowski is still three months shy of his 30th birthday. He estimated Thursday he had been asked some variation of the question about 50 times.
“As of right now, those are the last things I'm thinking of,” he said. “I love playing the game and love being in the moment. So I would say after a long season, after the game, a few weeks down the road, you sit back, you relax, you get some down time, enjoyment time, and you just see where you want to go with it.”
Career longevity might be the only thing that stops Gronkowski from being considered the best tight end of all time. Gronkowski was the fifth-fastest player in NFL history to reach 70 career touchdown catches, with the only four players ahead of him wide receivers. He ranks third all time with 79 regular-season touchdown catches, trailing only Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez. Gronkowski, though, has always been more than just a pass catcher. He doubles as the best blocking tight end in football, the ultimate luxury for an offense.
Think about it in golf terms: Tiger Woods might not ever catch Jack Nicklaus’ majors record but few doubt that Woods is the most dominant player ever. Injuries might be the only thing that prevent him from catching Nicklaus and eliminating any doubt over who is the true “best ever.” The same can be said for Gronkowski, who has missed 29 of a possible 144 games in his career – almost two full seasons.
“I mean, I'm really satisfied with how my whole career has been,” he said. “Super satisfied. There's ups and downs, but the thing is always coming back.”
After considering retirement last offseason, Gronkowski ultimately decided to do just that. His production during the 2018 season, however, did not reach his usual lofty numbers. He finished with 47 catches for 682 yards and three touchdowns. Those are all the lowest of his career for a season in which he appeared in at least 13 games.
“Going through those times when you weren't on the field, I was just motivated by my teammates because of how hard they were working,” he said. “The dedication they were putting in was second to none. That was the motivation, to get back out on the field and be there for my teammates.
“You know, when I started I never would have thought I'd be where I'm at now. I appreciate every moment of it. ... It's just special to be here now, again, at another Super Bowl.”
That start, of course, came in Williamsville, meaning Gronkowski might go down as the greatest athlete ever from Western New York. He reminisced this week about growing up as one of the five Gronkowski boys.
His favorite game was called “zoom.” Each brother would put a pillow under their shirt and go to a corner of the room. Then they ran full speed at each other. The last person standing was the winner.
Gronkowski dreamed then of being a professional athlete – in any sport.
“From the very beginning, we just always had a lot of passion playing sports,” he said. “That competition was instilled in me as a young kid.”
The Gronkowski boys have always had fun. That has never changed. Sometimes, though, it obscures a dogged work ethic that has led to each of them playing professional sports.
“That's what being a Patriot is all about, is putting the work in and dedication,” Gronkowski said. "That was always first. Having the fun and everything was always second, but if you got the work done, I mean, that was good to go then.”
True to form, Gronkowski has been his usual, happy-go-lucky self this week. He’s busted out dance moves on opening night, worn a sombrero and attempted (poorly) to speak Spanish and even had some cringeworthy moments. On Monday, he made a reference to his “favorite number,” then pointed at a female reporter and said “she knows what number I’m talking about.”
In other words, it’s been the full Gronk Experience. Watching him throughout the week leaves the impression that he’s aware this could be his last dance, and he’s determined to make the most of it.
“It feels good to be back here,” he said. “What it means to me is I've got to keep on working. I've got to keep on dedicating myself to my teammates, because they've been working hard all year.”
Gronkowski said he hasn’t envisioned what life outside of football will look like. He’s made appearances before in the WWE, and has the outsized personality (and muscles) to made it in pro wrestling. Others say he’s destined for Hollywood, where he could become the next big action star, like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
This week, though, Gronkowski wasn’t touching those questions.
“This is the biggest game of the year,” he said. “I'm telling you, that's all where my focus is at. ... I know you want to put all your work in and get ready for the game Sunday. I already know how the offseason works. You have all that free time, and that's when you can worry about things like that.”
Story topics: Rob Gronkowski