A typically jubilant and jesting Rob Gronkowski stood in front of media members on the brink of tears on Tuesday, after giving a horrifying depiction of the toll football had taken on his body. He spoke on the realities of the game beyond the adrenaline-fueled, celebratory spikes and chest bumps.
When the curtains closed and the audience went home, those were the moments that nearly broke the former New England Patriots tight end.
“I want to be clear to my fans. I needed to recover. I was not in a good place. Football was bringing me down, and I didn’t like it,” said Gronkowski, while getting choked up. “I was losing that joy in life. I’m sorry right now. I was fighting through it, and I knew what I signed up for, and I knew what I was fighting through, and I knew I just have to fix myself.”
Gronkowski, who officially retired from playing football in the offseason, claimed he is often asked by fans if he’ll return before the end of the year. He obviously hasn’t made the transition to a post-football career any easier on himself by repeatedly dropping hints of a potential return. Even at the media conference, where he was promoting CBD products, he left the door open to return as early as the next three months.
Of course, the mere mention of that news sent shockwaves of excitement throughout the sports stratosphere and became the headline for nearly every major publication. Imagining Patriots quarterback Tom Brady throwing to his favorite tight end, along with the various other weapons at his disposal is enough to make an avid sports fan overlook the 268-pound, mortal hunk of flesh that spent the last eight seasons getting pounded.
It makes you wonder if a peek behind the curtain would break the magic for fans.
The sight of a beloved sports hero crying out into the dark in agony of another sleepless, pain-filled night might be enough to put an end to the return inquiries. A front row seat to doctor visit after doctor visit, surgery after surgery and rehab after rehab might quell the comeback talk and revert it into self-preservation.
Perhaps even a closer look at past greats hobbling through meet-and-greets with slurred speech and broken-down bodies would convince some to let Gronkowski ride off into the sunset in peace.
And it should be permanent.
Now that Gronkowski is 30 years old, injuries are going to be more prevalent with a longer timetable for recovery. Not to mention players are purposely targeting his lower extremities to avoid getting flagged and fined for unnecessary roughness. A routine tackle at Super Bowl LIII had Gronkowski on a doctor’s table for multiple visits getting 1,000 milliliters of blood drained from a quadriceps injury.
That’s his new reality if he opts to come out of retirement and continue playing in the NFL. He’s already a three-time Super Bowl champion, first-ballot Hall of Famer and arguably the greatest tight end of all time. What else does he have to prove?
We can feign as if it’s for the love of the game, but a grown man being brought to tears because the game was “bringing him down” wasn’t manifested out of love. It was manifested out of the pressure to be Rob Gronkowski, the football player.
Severing that cord forever will be one of the hardest decisions he’ll ever have to make.
Although Gronkowski’s larger-than-life personality should net him plenty of other opportunities, nothing will ever compare to suiting up with his teammates, competing for championships and making history. It’s a transitional period that every player makes when deciding to hang up the cleats and helmet for good.
However, what no one wants to see is a banged-up Gronkowski returning and legitimately going out on his shield with another injury. Not every athlete gets to walk away on their own terms, much less as a champion.
The football chapter for Gronkowski is bookended by his clutch play in the AFC championship game, along with his diving 29-yard catch in the game-winning drive of Super Bowl LIII. That goofy ear-to-ear post-game grin is a much happier ending than the gruesome reality that was reflected in Tuesday’s media conference—a reality horrifying enough to consider leaving the curtains closed for good.