Patriots Teammate on Gronkowski: 'I Want Him to Look out for No. 1.'

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterAugust 15, 2014

AP Photo

When will we see New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, one of the more important players in football, in a regular-season game?

It still looks probable he will play in Week 1, but as Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio reported, there's no question there is some trepidation from people close to Gronkowski about his availability because of that creaky knee.

There are few in the Patriots locker room concerned about his short-term status. They believe he will play soon because, mostly, that is what Gronkowski does. He has tried to play even when it wasn't wise for him to do so. The real concern, based on several interviews via text with Patriots players, is long term. They wonder just how much longer Gronkowski can play football, period.

I want to be clear: There is no direness in these concerns. Players are not saying they're scared for him. The tone was more one of wonderment at how much his body can take and how long it can take it.

"I don't know if I would have been able to keep playing through everything he has," one player told me.

Said another: "He is displaying guts and toughness like I've never seen. Now I want him to look out for No. 1."

This isn't the first time I've heard this from the Patriots locker room in recent years. It was whispers then. Now, the conversation is slightly more vocal. Players simply hope Gronkowski is looking out for his long-term health, when his football-playing days are over, instead of focusing solely on the now.

Steven Senne/Associated Press

Again, there is no criticism of Gronkowski from teammates. More like admiration, but also caution and wonder about just how much the human body can take, how much a football player should take, before the concern about what your life will be like decades from now after the violence of football has passed.

This is an age-old question, but we are seeing it live and in color with Gronkowski. According to Sports Illustrated's Greg A. Bedard, he has been limping through some practices post-ACL tear not long after limping off the field, over and over, from a variety of ailments.

I reported months ago that Gronkowski was going to take it extremely slow this training camp. That's exactly what's happened. This is just my supposition, but I think Gronkowski, 25, is reaching that point where young players start to realize their great muscles and incredible power are no match for the long-term effects of football. (It could be argued he came to this realization last year.) They see, suddenly and starkly, what playing can do to the body.

They see that the only way to really manage the violence of football is to remove yourself from that violence or slow it down.

Even the most grounded of players can fall victim to the pressure of playing. Scott Fujita was an Academic All-Pac-10 player at Cal, a 10-year NFL veteran and Super Bowl champion. He is one of the more intelligent people I've ever known, yet even Fujita found the pull of football overriding what was in the best interest of his own personal health.

"Every player should do what's in the best interests of his long-term health," he told me. "But weighing that against what you're innately programmed to do is the challenge. How many times did I actually do what was ultimately in my best interests, from a health standpoint? Maybe once or twice in 25 years of playing this game. And that was only when I was in my 30s, married with three kids, and finally cared about the big picture. 

Rob Gronkowski Career Stats

"Generally for established players there's less urgency to rush back from an injury during training camp. No one wants to do training camp. But when real games are being played and you still can't get on the field, that's when bad, short-sighted decisions get made. And while things are much better than they used to be, everyone in this business has been guilty of that." 

Interestingly, it was just last year when Gronkowski, according to ESPN's Ed Werder, was criticized anonymously by teammates for what they perceived as Gronkowski taking his sweet time to return after yet another surgery. Now I'm hearing the opposite from players. They want him to take his time, even if doing so hurts the team overall.

The change in attitude reflects what has happened in just a year or less across the NFL. The focus of player safety has been on concussion awareness, and rightfully so. Yet the sport can also create a legion of limping ex-players whose knees are butter and backs are herniated. The violence of the sport can lead to a number of players addicted to pain killers.

The mind isn't the only victim. The ligaments, the joints, the ability to live pain-free are also jeopardized by the sport.

Yes, I know, players get paid millions. Yes, I know, football is a choice. Football is rewarding in many ways, but it is also eroding.

Dec 8, 2013; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) lies on he ground after getting injured by a Cleveland Browns player during the third quarter at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

Slowly but surely you are seeing players realize this and feel looking out for themselves is more important than allowing the team to pressure them to play. Part of this player shift in mindset can be seen in how the union successfully pushed for fewer padded practices. Good for the players. 

Overall, Gronkowski is a walking triage. He's been through four arm surgeries, a serious back surgery (then again, is there such a thing as minor back surgery?), a foot surgery and an ACL and MCL repair in two years. Oh, and I forgot, on the play where he tore his knee ligaments, he also suffered a concussion.

The last player that I can remember who went through such intense physical deconstruction in a short period of time was Jason Taylor.

In many ways, football players, particularly ones like Gronkowski or Taylor, are walking experiments.

It is true that without a threat like Gronkowski, the Patriots won't reach the Super Bowl. Other than Tom Brady, no player on offense is more critical. A functional Gronkowski changes the entire complexion of that team.

But for the moment, Gronkowski has larger concerns.

Like being able to walk without a limp.

Or making sure he'll be able to walk at all 20 years from now.

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.


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