Two years ago, Rob Gronkowski was the subject of retirement speculation. He spent nearly an hour soaking up the postgame celebration on the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta and looked like a player who was very much physically, mentally and emotionally spent. He took a brutal hit to his right quad during the Patriots victory and could barely put weight on that leg. As he slowly dressed in the locker room, he didn't have the strength to lift his leg up on his own to put his shoes on. He had to resort to using his hands to pull up his stiff right leg to slip on his white Nike sneakers.
One month after he won that third Super Bowl ring, in March 2019, the veteran tight end retired.
In his 13 months away from the game, Gronk seemed happy, and most of all, healthy. After nine seasons playing an extremely physical brand of football, Gronk let his body take a break. He lost weight and he partnered with a medical marijuana firm to create a line of CBD products that helped relieve his pain. He hosted a giant beach party in Miami for Super Bowl LIV, he hosted WrestleMania, and he performed the song "I'm Too Sexy" for an episode of The Masked Singer. He looked every bit like a guy who was really, really enjoying his time off.
A year after he twerked on the sand in neon shorts at his Super Bowl party, Gronk was back on the field, this time catching two touchdown passes in the Buccaneers' 31-9 victory. He had six catches for 67 yards in the game, and as always, his blocking was key to setting up running plays. Gronkowski has now caught five touchdown passes in five Super Bowl appearances in his career (he missed one in New England due to injury). In Gronk's 10 NFL seasons, his teams have always made it at least to the divisional round of the playoffs.
The talk of this game will surround Tom Brady's legacy as the winner of seven Super Bowl rings, as well as another Super Bowl MVP, or defensive coordinator Todd Bowles' masterful performance in holding the Chiefs without a touchdown, but Gronkowski deserves as much credit.
As Jim Nantz said on the CBS broadcast, most people go to Florida to retire. Gronk went to Florida to un-retire. Very few players officially retire from the game while still at their peak, when they are still wanted. And even fewer players un-retire.
But when his quarterback signed with Tampa Bay, Gronk had the leverage to force New England to trade his rights to the Buccaneers, the only team he would come out of retirement to play for.
Gronk's first touchdown came on a clever play design. As he described to SiriusXM Radio postgame, in previous plays, he had set the stage for the Chiefs to expect him to wrap (pull inside and block up a defender). He said he's wrapped a thousand times in his career, and "I never leak out on that—never, never." Gronk lined up on the outside foot of the right tackle and pulled inside across the formation. But this time, he leaked out to look for the ball. Brady found him wide open for a touchdown.
His second touchdown was actually an improvisational route that Gronk credited to his relationship with Brady. He said he had a corner route on the play and thought he was going to get the ball but the ball wasn't even in the air yet, so he improvised. "I planted and I did a U-turn and Tom saw it and he hit me," he told SiriusXM. "That goes back to the chemistry we built during our whole career."
Gronk had seven touchdowns on the season but he hadn't scored in the Buccaneers' previous four games. His 623 regular-season yards are nowhere near his career high of 1,327, or even 2017's 1,084 yards. He described his role this season as "a small big part." And he's exactly right. In some games this season, Gronkowski had a small role, or mainly a blocking role, but in the biggest game and the biggest moment, his connection with Brady mattered most. With the Lombardi Trophy on the line, Brady went to the guy he knows the best.
"You never know with this offense who is going to get the ball and make the plays," Gronkowski said. "We have so many superstars on this team, but no one's head was ever too big this year. Whoever got the ball, got the ball. ... It just happened to be me this time."
Gronk played 20 games this season, the most in his career, but he's still feeling great. His year off clearly rejuvenated him. He said postgame that he's going to remain un-retired and will hit free agency for the first time in his career. He wants to come back to Tampa, a city that he said fits his laid-back, T-shirt and sandals vibes. "I see myself coming back," he said. "I don't see why I won't be back."
Gronk's attitude and health now are a far cry from where he was two years ago, when he hobbled out of the Patriots locker room. "I remember after that win, I was so done coming off of the field," he told reporters postgame. "I was like, I am just glad it's over, the pain I was in too. It felt great to be a champ, but it felt great to be done."
Now, Gronk is simply feeling great. He reunited with his quarterback, and in their first season playing for a different franchise, they won the Super Bowl. Again.
"It's hands down one of the greatest accomplishments in sports history," Gronkowski told reporters after the game.
When Brady raised the Lombardi Trophy on the celebration stage, he said there'll be more of these. Gronk plans to be right there by his side, and now that they've done it again, it's hard to argue that there won't be more where that came from.
Kalyn Kahler covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow her on Twitter for NFL musings and thoughts: @KalynKahler.
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