Rob Gronkowski will watch Sunday's big game at New Era Field while sitting in front of a television in Fort Myers, Fla., with his mother. He'll be about 1,300 miles from his native Western New York and the visiting team, the New England Patriots, on which he spent nine seasons and established himself as arguably the greatest tight end in NFL history.
Welcome to retirement life.
A weekend visit to mom's house for her birthday wouldn't have been possible if Gronkowski were still part of that Patriots juggernaut. But he insists it isn't weird to be preparing to watch – rather than play – a game against the Buffalo Bills for first place in the AFC East. He's equally emphatic in saying there have been no strange feelings from missing out on the Patriots' 3-0 start.
"I really don't find it strange at all," Gronkowski said by phone this week. "I made the decision to walk away from the game and I felt like it was the right decision. And I still feel like it's the right decision. So, when you have that feeling and you go with your gut, it's not really that strange at all to not be suiting up."
Gronkowski's gut wasn't the only part of his 30-year-old body that was screaming to him it was time to hang up his cleats, a decision he announced March 24.
There was his head, which he estimates was subjected to 20 concussions – five of the blackout variety. There was his quadriceps, with internal bleeding so severe after the Patriots' sixth Super Bowl victory last February that he was brought to tears while teammates celebrated and had to have nearly 1,000 milliliters of blood drained.
"I'm a big fan of the NFL, love the game of football," said Gronkowski, who still lives in Foxborough, Mass., near the Patriots' home of Gillette Stadium. "But I knew I needed time off and I knew I needed to walk away from the game."
To say Gronk exited while on top would be an understatement. On Feb. 3, he became an NFL champion for the third time by helping the Patriots beat the Los Angeles Rams, 13-3, in Super Bowl LIII. With the score tied at 3-3 in the fourth quarter, he made the game's biggest play with a 29-yard reception to the Rams' 2-yard line to set up the game's lone touchdown. He also set the record for catches (23) and yards (297) for a tight end in the Super Bowl.
Gronkowski is a five-time Pro Bowl selection and a four-time Associated Press All-Pro first-team choice. Among the several NFL records he set is being the only player at his position to lead the league in receiving touchdowns with the 17 he had in 2011.
In the latest edition of One-on-One Coverage, Gronkowski talked with The Buffalo News about his first season out of the NFL, his physical and mental recovery from the punishment he took playing football, the possibility of a return to the field, and the multiple ways he is keeping himself busy these days.
Buffalo News: After going through what you have documented in the media – all the concussions, the nine surgeries – how could you ever even consider wanting to play again?
Rob Gronkowski: That's part of the reason why I walked away from the game, too, is I truly believe that I could heal myself, which I have. Over the last five months, six months, I've been just doing things to help heal my body, help put my mind at more ease, more settled. And when I made that decision to walk away from the game, I knew I was going to be full-in to take care of myself, to take care of my body, and that's what I've been doing.
I'm feeling good. I mean, all those surgeries, all those injuries, they're not nagging me no more. I'm walking around actually real good, great. Workouts are great. I can just do my activities whenever I need to do activities. Go out in the backyard, shoot hoops, swim, basketball, cornhole. Whatever it is, I can just go and enjoy myself and do it.
That was my main mission, to heal myself so that I don't have to worry about that the rest of my life. While doing it, I kind of fell in love with that mission of healing myself. I love getting treatments, I love finding ways to rest my brain, make it at ease, settle it down and just feel good.
BN: People who know you well are saying they see the difference, even in the way you communicate with them?
RG: Yes, definitely. I've been getting that from a lot of people that are close to me, from family members to friends. And that's what I was looking for, is being clear-minded. When you're beat up, you've got inflammation in your body, I can tell you this right now: You're not going to be clear-minded. Through experiences like that, it's tough to be clear-minded. That's what I wanted to do, is get clear-minded, let the body just be flowing and have the joy of life.
And that's where I'm at now and it feels great, man. Making decisions quick, on the fly. Getting things done when I need to get them done. I'm definitely getting there, but there's always more you can go, always farther you can go.
BN: What do you miss most about playing?
RG: Being around the locker room, being with the guys. That's what I would say a lot players say when they're done playing the game. Yes, I miss the game of football and everything, but not as much as I miss the way of life, every single day, going in and having a family outside of your family with the boys in the locker room. Having those team bonds, forming a bond every single day with your teammates around you and going to battle with them.
BN: What kind of fan are you now? What's your routine as far as watching games?
RG: I love the game of football, love everything about the game of football, and now I'm not playing, I have a different view of the game – a view that I never really saw because I was always playing. It's a view of watching game as a fan now and understanding why the game of football is America's game. It's a special game.
While playing, I used to think a collision is just a collision. But now as a fan, watching the game, I'm looking like, "Wow! This is amazing, what these players are doing, running full speed into each other?" You won't see that anywhere else in any other sport, and it's making me appreciate football even more. Now, just being a fan, it's like "Whoa, what a hit!" It's just amazing just to see that.
I'll always watch football, and it just gives you something to do, too. You put the game on, you can have a meeting, you can make a phone call, but at the same time you're looking up and you're watching a big hit, a big play. The game of football will always be around my life even when I'm not playing. I'm not too crazy of a fan. I love the game, but I'm not going to be running home full speed to catch the game.
BN: With the Patriots looking as dominant as ever, don't you feel as if you're missing out?
RG: No. Like I said, I had to make that decision and I'm very satisfied and very happy with where I am with that decision. I even thought about stuff like that before I made that decision, how I would feel during the season and all that. And I knew that if I made that decision, I can't look back and that's what I'm not doing – I'm not looking back. I knew I had a mission, to take care of myself and to get myself back healthy so I can enjoy life and all that type of stuff again.
But they're 3-0. I'm super happy for the boys. I know that organization, inside and out, and they're always going to be successful. They're such hard workers over there. And that's just one of the pieces that I can take into the next chapter of my life, just the details and the hard work that they put in over in that organization.
BN: Do you keep in touch with Tom Brady?
RG: Yeah, I always keep in touch with Brady. I actually train at his (TB12) center whenever I'm in Foxborough, in the Boston area. I love going out and getting a workout at the TB12, getting some treatments up there. I think that's actually one of the main reasons why I am pain-free, too, is doing the type of treatments up there to make myself pliable. It feels great just having that type of lifestyle so I can be able to do anything at any time and not have to worry about any team.
BN: Does he bug you to come back?
RG: No, he doesn't. He respects my decision and knows where I'm at. So it's very cool to see that. I'm always cheering for him whenever I'm watching and cheering for him for the season big time.
BN: What's the best memory from your playing career?
RG: I've got to go with Super Bowl XLIX, when we beat the Seahawks (28-24). The game was back and forth, we were down twice and came back. And then we thought they were going to score and then the interception by Malcolm Butler (to seal the victory in the final seconds). And, also, my having a fade route for a 22-yard touchdown. It was just an amazing year.
BN: You're obviously aware of how different Sunday's game feels to a lot of fans in Buffalo with their team 3-0 for the first time since 2011.
RG: I was just in Buffalo and I've got friends in Buffalo, and you know something? No matter what their record is, they're always going to the Super Bowl, according to my friends. So I really don't know the difference this year compared to previous years and I'm not lying. That's just the Buffalo mentality and you've got to respect it. I mean, I respect it.
Whenever I hear my friends talking, it gives us laughs and giggles. There's always going to be hype around football, because that's what makes the game so great. It's just awesome how the game of football brings together communities and the smack-talking, too. You've got to love it.
BN: Did playing in Buffalo bring out a little something extra in you?
RG: Yeah, big time. When you go home to your hometown, it gives you that little extra spark. I would say I saw that within other players, too, whenever we would go into their city where they're from. It's something special to be able to go back to the stadium you always drove by, to be able to play in it and perform in it, it gives you that extra spark.
BN: What's the best memory from growing up in Western New York?
RG: I wouldn't say there was one memory of my childhood. I would say it was my whole childhood as a memory. I believe I had a great childhood. It was nonstop competing. I lived on a street, Londonderry Lane in Amherst, where I had my brothers – three older, one younger – and then each of my older brothers had four friends that lived on the street. And I had four friends that lived on the street, so there was always someone to play with if it was basketball, if it was mini-sticks, if it was backyard baseball. Everyone was always competing. I was always competing in my childhood.
And I believe that competition, me facing my brothers and my friends, older friends, all the time has led me to where I am today. It instilled that competition in my mind, in my system, to always be competing. And even though I'm done with football, I'm still competing. As a kid, it was just so much joy to be playing any sport.
One thing that sticks out is the hits we took as kids. We used to set up boards in the basement for mini-sticks and the rules were full-on checking. And I got decked right through the boards and went right through the middle of it and absolutely broke the board in half. That's the type of hits we had growing up as a kid.
BN: Among the many things keeping you busy these days is Stadium Blitz, a series of 5K obstacle-course races to be held at New Era Field on Oct. 12 at 5 p.m., and also at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa on Oct. 26. What's it all about and how did you become involved?
RG: They came to us over the summer about this idea that they had that was already all backed and everything. It's going to be held in NFL and collegiate stadiums for people that love fitness and love competition. And it doesn't just bring competition. It also brings fun and strategic competition, too.
It's 15 obstacles that you have to complete while you're doing the 5K. Some of the obstacles are throwing a football into a net and you can't go on until you get the football into the net. Others are climbing up monkey bars and getting to the other side.
I love staying busy, I love staying fit, I love having that part in my life. And everything that I'm really doing from here on out is around that. It's around being in the fitness industry and being fit, if it's working out or if it's recovering.
BN: You're also involved with a company called CBD Medic, which manufactures cannabidiol-based products for pain relief.
RG: It's a topical cream that's all natural that will help take away pain and start help the promoting of healing. The product's from menthol and camphor, which are pharmaceutical-grade ingredients that help relieve pain, and it has CBD in it. And on top of that, it has all the essential oils like clove oil, cotton seed oil, eucalyptus oil, Jojoba-seed oil, peppermint oil, tea tree oil.
I'm totally pain-free now. I've been doing it all the last five months through all natural remedies, from treatments at the TB12 Center, how I'm eating, all natural, organic foods. This just fit right in line, because I am still active, I'm still doing stuff, I'm competing like at Stadium Blitz, still getting sore muscles. But if I want to keep going that day, if I do have something that's bothering me, that's when the CBD Medic thing comes in. You rub it on, it gives you that relief that you're looking for, for a good 46 hours. You can just go about your day without worrying about being bothered by pain.
My dad knew that I was doing an all-natural way to heal my body, so when I got some bumps and bruises, he actually sent me the CBD Medic to try it out this summer and it worked wonderful. It gave me the pain relief that I was looking for. What's most important, though, is I'm very, very aware of what I'm putting into my body now, and it just fit the description of what I'm trying to do. I love it, I use it all the time.
BN: You've also invested in a company your brother Chris started that sells the Ice Shaker, for protein drinks and other beverages.
RG: It keeps your drink cold for more than 30 hours. It can also be used for coffee, cold drinks and also, most importantly, it's a protein-drink shaker. My brother was on 'Shark Tank about' three years ago with it and Alex Rodriguez and Mark Cuban invested into it. But over the last two months, A-Rod sold me his piece of the company so I could be with my brother. I love working with him and it's just so cool to be part of something in the family.
BN: How much have you changed your diet?
RG: Oh, man, I've changed my diet big time. I'm down like 15-20 pounds, so I'm at like 245 right now and it feels great. I've never actually been this light, really, since 18 years old. I wanted to lose the weight, so I was kind of doing intermediate fasting and some juice cleanses to clean the inflammation out of my body to help me lose bloated weight that was on me. That's how I started losing my weight.
To maintain it, I've just been eating organic. I've been really eating foods that are really high in fat, like almond butter, olive oil, avocados, things along that line. Then I'll be eating organic vegetables and just all organic plant-based products. And when I do eat meat, it's always organic meats, too. I'm just going to foods that feed your body, that give you that nutrition man. Like I said, there's not just one thing that has helped me get pain free. There's a combination of many things that have got me there. And it feels amazing. It's just a lifestyle now.