After an uneventful Super Bowl, it was a nice surprise to check Rob Gronkowski’s stats and see how well he played. He finished with six catches for 87 yards, behind Julian Edelman as the most productive receiver for the Patriots, and has now had more catches in the Super Bowl than any other tight end in history.
I remember two of his catches in particular for contrasting reasons.
There was the 29-yard catch halfway through the fourth quarter that took the Patriots to the Rams’ 2-yard line, allowing New England to seal the win when Sony Michel rushed for a touchdown the next play. Gronkowski dove to catch the ball while being blanketed by two defenders in an excellent display of how impossible he truly is to cover. It was the most exciting play of the game to me.
Then there was the play at the beginning of that touchdown drive. Gronkowski pretended that he was blocking, then released to the sideline where he caught a lofted pass from Tom Brady. He was stopped after gaining 18 yards by Samson Ebukam, who got the bigger and fast tight end to fall on top of his troublesome left arm, which was in a huge brace that made him look like an NFL winter soldier.
When Gronkowski bounced off the ground, it looked just for a second like he was wincing in pain. I immediately felt a sense of dread — Oh, no. Fuck. Not again. He got up quickly, thankfully, but for the last few seasons that has been my reaction whenever Gronkowski gets taken down hard. Earlier in the game he was stopped by two defenders taking his legs out from underneath him, and it was just as uncomfortable to watch.
The last few years, rumors have swirled that perhaps the most accomplished tight end ever has been thinking about retirement because of the toll that the sport has taken on his mind and body. As much as I love watching him play, I have also wanted him to walk away from the game while he still can. The sense of dread that I get whenever he hits the ground is for the fact that he might not have the luxury of making that decision on his own someday.
Football is a physical game, and that physicality is at the heart of what makes it so intriguing to watch. Anyone who walks out onto a field is signing a contract to participate in violence as long as the actions are legal within the game.
Gronkowski throughout his career has been as physical as any player. He has always relished the contact, building a reptuation over the years for manhandling grown men, often dragging multiple defenders with him as he makes his way toward the end zone. The fun of watching Gronkowski is intertwined with his ability get the ball and plow through other human beings. He is to defenders what defenders usually are to skill players.
But that style of play means consequences. Gronkowski missed his entire 2009 season in college because of a back vertebral disc hernia, and since he came into the league in 2012, he has suffered 15 reported injuries:
- He suffered a high ankle sprain in the 2012 AFC Championship, then an inguinal hip pull and fractured forearm the following November that forced him to miss five games.
- In January 2013, he re-fractured that forearm and needed three more surgeries to fix it, then had another surgery in May on a fractured vertebrae.
- In December 2013, he tore his ACL, MCL, and had a concussion all on the same play, causing him to miss all of 2014.
- In 2015, he missed a game because of a knee sprain.
- In 2016, he had a hamstring pull, chest lung bruise, and another hernia in his back.
- In 2017, he missed a game from a thigh bruise.
- And this past season, he suffered another concussion and missed three games because of his back and ankle.
Before the Super Bowl, Ian Rapoport reported that Gronkowski had battled achilles tendonitis and a bulging disc in his back all season, but that the tight end was “healthy” for the game. David J. Chao, a former NFL doctor, wrote in response that, while Gronkowski would certainly be able to play in the game, the idea that he was “healthy” was misguided:
An intervertebral disc can be compared to a jelly donut. A bulging disc is like when the jelly is partially squeezed out. Once that happens, the jelly doesn’t ever go back in. In fact, the hope is it stays just a bulging rather than progressing to a herniated disc (fully squeezed out jelly) or extruded disc (the jelly is on the plate and not touching the donut anymore). ...
As for the Achilles tendonitis, that doesn’t go away quickly, as we saw with Chiefs safety Eric Berry this year.
The idea that there’s no putting the jelly back in the donut is something that Gronkowski seems keenly aware of. At the end of January, he was candid about the effects of so many injuries, from the big ones to the small, on his mental health:
Gronk discussed the toll that a full season has on a player. pic.twitter.com/OGhfdhWFsW— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 31, 2019
The responses under the tweet that tweet embedded above were as callous and disheartening as one expect from the NFL’s violence-happy fans. The line of thinking within the replies seemed to be that because Gronkowski knowingly plays a physical game, he has no room to complain about the pain that he goes through because of it.
But as much as I also enjoy watching Gronkowski bulldoze defenders, I can’t forget a video he posted to Instagram in 2016 while he was recovering from his back surgery. He was in a hospital gown, using a walker, and taking very slow and tentative steps. The other man in the video said, “Step one, we get the kid on his feet.” Then Gronkowski looked to the camera and joked, “Dance floor, tomorrow night. Here I come.”
Maybe wanting Gronkowski to walk away from the game, is a way for me to feel comfortable with the violence of the game. Out of sight, out of mind. So that I can pretend that the game doesn’t have a lasting effect on the human beings who play it. His retirement would be a reprieve to me in the same way as a thumbs up gesture by injured players who get carted off the field, giving permission to fans to go back to enjoying what they know is dangerous.
But seeing that video of him in the hospital gown, and knowing that he’s had to go through that process multiple times — having surgery, being immobilized, learning how to walk again, going through what feels like endless hours of rehabilitation, the mental and emotional turmoil that comes with that trying process — makes me wish that someone who has been a source of entertainment and pride for me as a fan for so long can simply be safe from now on.
Gronkowski may never truly recover from what has been done to his body, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t try to salvage his health. He’s one of the best tight ends to play the game and he’s won more Super Bowls than most players could dream of. It would be wonderful if he’s able to leave the sport and be at relative peace away from it, because with each season, the danger increases that he might not be able to.