NFL: Is this the end for Patriots' Gronkowski?

ATLANTA -- He danced his way onto the platform Monday night, more of a full-body convulsion than anything, and that's the way Rob Gronkowski began his Super Bowl week.

Kirby Lee / USA Today SportsPatriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) runs after a catch during the second half of the AFC championship game Jan. 20 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.
Kirby Lee / USA Today Sports Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) runs after a catch during the second half of the AFC championship game Jan. 20 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.

ATLANTA - He danced his way onto the platform Monday night, more of a full-body convulsion than anything, and that's the way Rob Gronkowski began his Super Bowl week.

Maybe it's his last. Maybe it's just his latest.

He wouldn't say.

"I'm not sure," he said of his future at one point, one of several variations of how the New England Patriots tight end deflected the many questions about his possible retirement. Would he soon pursue an acting career? A foray into pro wrestling? Gronkowski would need a few weeks, after the Super Bowl, to think about it. "I haven't gotten that far."

But in truth, life after the NFL has been on his mind for more than a year. His body has, for at least the past two seasons, begun to break down as his confrontational playing style takes its toll. To further complicate matters, "Gronk" will turn 30 in May, and defenders seem to zero in on his vulnerabilities - lingering back, ankle and arm injuries among them. Gronkowski hasn't appeared for a full 16 games in a regular season since 2011, and this season he missed three games and was a mainstay on New England's injury report.


In the past, the Gronkowski story before Super Bowls used to be how the Patriots would deploy one of the most physically dominant players in football history. Now it's how much longer the NFL will have him - and his unpredictable behavior - to enjoy.

"This is the beginning of the end," Nate Burleson, an NFL analyst for CBS, said. "Just being realistic: How many more pieces of equipment can you put on your body before it literally stops you from being who you are?"

Which is why, in part, this week seems like something of a last ride. Gronkowski didn't just dance before Super Bowl week's "Opening Night," a spectacle that seems to annoy and confuse most of New England's players and coaches.

"What's 6 times 9 plus 6 plus 9?" he said in response to a question whose answer was intended for a group of first-graders. "Figure it out. It's a good answer!"

This was Gronkowski - the NFL's clown prince since 2010 - playing the hits, and even if this week isn't officially a farewell tour, it feels like it. Between his more traditional antics, he reflected on the passage of time and the way his rookie season feels so recent. He noted the changes to "Opening Night" and Super Bowl week itself. Occasionally he looked back on what is almost certainly a Hall of Fame career: five Pro Bowls, five Super Bowl appearances and at least two Super Bowl wins.

"When I started," Gronkowski said during a moment of introspection, "I never would've thought I'd be where I'm at. And I appreciate every moment of it."

Then, flicking back into character, he returned to being goofy or random or nonsensical. It is part of the Gronkowski charm, maybe the purest reminder that the NFL - a corporate giant that takes over major U.S. cities, fights off one public-relations crisis after another, nevertheless hauls in $15 billion per year - is in the entertainment business.

And Gronk is nothing if not entertaining. Asked this week about his favorite music, Gronkowski said he prefers tunes with a good beat, appearing to suggest he'll be making his own music soon enough.


"I've been practicing a lot lately, listening to more songs," he said, one of several statements that never quite arrived at its point. "But I like to dance."

Years earlier, Gronkowski had become a superstar after videos landed on social media with him furiously dancing without a shirt; if his 6-foot-6 and 268-pound frame made him seem superhuman, his preference for low-brow humor and a proudly simple way of explaining things made him relatable. Gronkowski's personality was the perfect counterweight to Patriots coach Bill Belichick's dryness. Gronk drank with both fans and A-list celebrities, hosted his own party cruise to the Bahamas, said things so outrageous that sometimes it even made Belichick laugh. His "Gronk Spike" touchdown celebration was simultaneously primitive and beautiful.

But a little more than a year ago, it almost seemed as if the No Fun League - a nickname the NFL earned after continually tightening rules and banning many touchdown celebrations - actually had broken the most fun player in football.

During the 2017 season, reports emerged of discord in the New England machine: Coaches and players were drifting apart after a 16-year dynasty. Gronkowski, for his part, wanted to train a certain way; the Patriots preferred a different method. In December 2017 Gronkowski was suspended for a late hit that caused a concussion to a defender, and he apologized for letting his frustration boil over.

By last year's Super Bowl, it seemed believable that, in what many would have expected to be the prime of his career, he could walk away.

"I don't know how you heard that," he said shortly after New England lost to Philadelphia, "but, I mean, I'm definitely going to look at my future."

He wouldn't commit to playing in 2018 until last April, and as the Patriots entertained trade offers for him in the lead-up to the draft, Gronkowski threatened to retire. Somehow Gronk, once the very embodiment of joy, seemed to have lost his smile.

The summer passed, and the Patriots eventually reworked Gronkowski's contract. Gronk was smiling again, the Patriots were winning again, but the tight end missed three games and seemed unable to fully recover from back and ankle injuries. He seemed to limp off the field more frequently, appeared physically and mentally beaten down more regularly. He indicated in November that 2018 was more challenging than seasons past, and his three touchdowns during the regular season tied for the fewest of his career.


"He doesn't look like young Gronk," Burleson said this week, and if 41-year-old Patriots quarterback Tom Brady seems ageless, the same cannot be said about the tight end.

On Monday, someone asked him how many more seasons - how much more punishment - Gronkowski's body could take.

"That's a good question," he said. "That's a good question."

He paused for a long time.

"Many," he finally said. "Many years. As many years as I want to go."

RAMS (15-3) VS. PATRIOTS (13-5)

When: 5:30 p.m. Sunday (CBS Ch. 3)

Where: Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta

Line: Patriots by 2.5


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