Reimer: Rob Gronkowski's unforgettable career was always on borrowed time

By WEEI 93.7

Rob Gronkowski foreshadowed his retirement on the Wednesday before the Super Bowl. The usually jubilant tight end, who was cracking “69” jokes earlier in the week, spoke candidly about the physical hell that football inflicts on his body. It was an apparent peek into Gronkowski’s mind, and probably the underlying reason why the best tight end to ever strap on shoulder pads decided Sunday to call it quits two months before his 30th birthday.

"The season's a grind. It's up and down. I'm not going to lie and sit here and say every week is the best," Gronkowski told reporters. “Abusing your body isn't what your brain wants. 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 gotta be able to deal with that in the games. 

"And no one realizes that, and everyone expects us players to be wide awake every single day, and it's like, ‘Yo, i just took 50 hits to my head … I'm saying I just took 50 collisions, and then the next day everyone wants you to be up. They want practice full speed, next week they want the game to be full speed, but they don't understand sometimes what players are going through with their bodies, with their minds.”

Those are not the words of the boisterous, fun-loving, “Yo soy fiesta” Gronk, but rather a damaged heavyweight who’s undergone at least nine surgeries over the last 10 years. 

It all started at 20 years old on stage at the NFL draft when my dream came true, and now here I am about to turn 30 in a few months with a decision I feel is the biggest of my life so far. I will be retiring from the game of football today. I am so grateful for the opportunity that Mr. Kraft and Coach Belichick gave to me when drafting my silliness in 2010. My life experiences over the last 9 years have been amazing both on and off the field. The people I have meet, the relationships I have built, the championships I have been apart of, I just want to thank the whole New England Patriots organization for every opportunity I have been giving and learning the great values of life that I can apply to mine. Thank you to all of Pats Nation around the world for the incredible support since I have been apart of this 1st class organization. Thank you for everyone accepting who I am and the dedication I have put into my work to be the best player I could be. But now its time to move forward and move forward with a big smile knowing that the New England Patriots Organization, Pats Nation, and all my fans will be truly a big part of my heart for rest of my life. It was truly an incredible honor to play for such a great established organization and able to come in to continue and contribute to keep building success. To all my current and past teammates, thank you for making each team every year special to be apart of. I will truly miss you guys. Cheers to all who have been part of this journey, cheers to the past for the incredible memories, and a HUGE cheers to the uncertain of whats next.

A post shared by Rob Gronkowski (@gronk) on Mar 24, 2019 at 2:53pm PDT

Gronkowski’s NFL career was always on borrowed time. The 6-foot-7, 269-pound behemoth missed all of his junior season at the University of Arizona due to his first of three documented back operations. He fell to the Patriots in the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft, and dominated immediately. Gronk played 16 games in each of his first two seasons, leading the league with 17 touchdowns in his breakout sophomore campaign. 

That offseason, Gronkowski underwent his first surgery as a pro, when doctors repaired his injured ankle. Afterwards, he signed a six-year, $54 million extension, the largest ever for a tight end at the time. Gronk never signed another contract with the Patriots, despite his reported requests for a raise. They gave him an incentive package last season, but he didn't hit any of them.

With Gronk’s cap number set to be $12 million this season, and the Patriots lacking salary space, there was some speculation New England would try to bring him back at a discounted rate. Agent Drew Rosenhaus appeared to do some public posturing in recent weeks, speculating on ESPN about Gronk’s future in Hollywood or broadcasting.

It’s appropriate that drama and uncertainty surrounded Gronkowski until the very end. His numerous trips to the injury list produced multiple apparent stand-offs with Bill Belichick, including when the Patriots filed a joint statement with his family in 2015 about the status of his injured right knee. Around the same, Gronkowski posted a weird video on Bleacher Report, saying he “wouldn’t return until he’s 100 percent.”

The seeming distrust between Gronkowski Inc. and the Patriots emanates from the team’s mishandling of his broken forearm in 2012. Gronk returned to the field just six weeks later, only to re-injure the same forearm in the Divisional Round game against Houston just two weeks later. He underwent three more arm surgeries –– in addition to a back procedure –– over the next five months, but still found the time to perform a DDT on stage at a Las Vegas nightclub

Though the Patriots expected Gronkowski to return the following September, he sat out until late October. In early December, Gronk tore his ACL following a hellish hit from safety T.J. Ward, introducing a new chapter to his injury-riddled career. Since Gronkowski is so massive, defenders would often try to take out his knees, because it was the easiest way to bring him down.

But Gronkowski’s back remained his biggest concern. He underwent surgery to repair a herniated disk late in the 2016 season, forcing him to miss the historic Super Bowl comeback against the Falcons.

Around that time, we started hearing about Gronkowski’s work with TB12, which Belichick reportedly didn’t support. According to the Herald’s Karen Guregian, Belichick once chastised Gronkowski about his training regimen with Alex Guerrero in front of his teammates in the locker room. 

The reported tension with Belichick almost pushed Gronkowski to retire in training camp 2017, says NBC Sports Boston’s Tom Curran. But Gronk went on to enjoy one of his best seasons ever, catching nine passes for 116 yards and two touchdowns in the Super Bowl against the Eagles.

Then he teased the Patriots for months, tweeting out Juicy J lyrics and participating in a bizarre Motorcross press conference at Gillette Stadium. Gronkowski formally committed to returning right before the NFL Draft, but missed voluntary OTAs, just like Tom Brady. Gronk seemed to be defying Belichick’s austerity, with a blessing from his quarterback. 

Brady and Gronk appeared inseparable, but now, TB12 will play without him. It speaks to the apparent magnitude of Gronkowski’s decision: even imagined pleading phone calls from the GOAT couldn’t change his mind. 

It was a frustrating season for Gronkowski, who only caught 47 passes and withstood mockery from television grifters like Rex Ryan. But like an aged prizefighter, Gronk delivered when the games mattered most. The last catch of his NFL career set up the Patriots’ game-winning touchdown in the Super Bowl. 

Gronk’s final NFL catch.

— Pats Pulpit (@patspulpit) March 24, 2019

Gronkowski was hit with the retirement questions right after that catch, but opted to bask in the glow of Bud Light showers down Boylston Street and late-night TV interviews for a while. Gronk embraced the pageantry of NFL life. He just seemed tired of everything else. 

It’s a bummer Gronk is gone, but in many respects, it’s a blessing he lasted this long.