The New England Patriots should’ve never been able to draft Rob Gronkowski. His stock plummeted after he missed the entirety of his junior season at the University of Arizona rehabbing from back surgery, which meant he was still on the board when the Patriots were picking in the middle of the second round. In the seven years since, he’s established himself as the most dominant tight end to ever step onto the field. But he’s also missed more than a season’s worth of games due to injury, raising questions about his football mortality on multiple occasions.
The most recent blow to Gronkowski’s injury-riddled career came Thursday, when it was reported he would miss the rest of the year after undergoing another back operation. In a joint statement, the Patriots and Gronkowski say he began to experience “significant back and leg pain” after taking a hit against the New York Jets last Sunday. Despite reports to the contrary, the statement says this latest episode is unrelated to the lung contusion Gronkowski suffered against the Seattle Seahawks November 13.
This is familiar ground for the Patriots. They’ve entered the playoffs with a limited Gronkowski or without him entirely in five of the last seven years—perhaps costing them multiple championships. He was hobbled with an ankle injury in Super Bowl 46, broke his forearm in 2012, missed the 2013 postseason with an ACL tear, and was never right last year after taking a gruesome hit to his knee in late November. Outside of his rookie season, the only year Gronkowski was fully healthy was 2014, and the Patriots went on to win the Super Bowl.
At 27 years old, Gronkowski has experienced at least nine surgeries since 2009, three of which have been back procedures. That’s more punishment than any human body—even Gronkowski’s 6-foot-6, 265-pound frame—should be forced to withstand. In the statement, the Patriots say it’s in Gronkowski’s best long-term interest to undergo surgery. But if that’s truly the top concern, Gronkowski would be wise to go one step further. When the operation is complete, he should retire from football.
On the surface, it seems blasphemous to suggest Gronkowski walk away from the gridiron. He’s the living embodiment of every football jock stereotype, from his brotastic shorts and tank-top wardrobe to his obsession with the number 69. Pats fans understandably love the guy, and his excellence on the field has made watching the team damn fun. But it will become harder and harder to watch him put his body through this, and his devoted fanbase should be willing to think about what’s best for him in the long run.
And he can certainly bounce back post-football. Behind that juvenile persona lurks a very savvy businessman. Gronk Inc. is serious stuff. He’s used his football megastardom to launch a lifestyle brand. The Gronk Party Bus and Gronk Party Cruise may not be as fun if Gronk is sitting on the sidelines instead of partaking in the festivities.
It’s not melodramatic to predict Gronkowski’s physical decline. As he ages, his body will likely only break down further. Time does not do any favors to the human body’s ability to bounce back from injury, and the regular beating that NFL players suffer is only going to wear on him more.
Gronkowski also faces challenges due to his massive build. Since the NFL placed a rightful emphasis on eliminating hits to the head, defenders often have no choice but to target his lower-body. Every time he goes over the middle of the field, he risks getting his knees blown out. Denver Broncos safety T.J. Ward, who’s responsible for tearing Gronkowski’s ACL and MCL three years ago, said it’s the only way to bring him down.
“It’s kind of being caught between a rock and a hard place,” he said. “It’s a decision you have to make, but you have to follow the rules at the same time. When they set the rule, everyone knew what was going to happen. This can happen if you have those types of situations. It’s pretty much inevitable, and they forced our hand with this one.”
In recent years, several NFL stars have chosen to retire early instead of play out their careers. Last offseason featured the retirements of Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch, 30, and Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson, 31, both of whom were two of the best offensive players of their generation. Johnson said he walked away because he was tired of the daily grind of playing football. “I wouldn’t just quit because we were losing.” he said. “It was just body. I was just tired of it, fed up. Just had enough.”
There’s no sign Gronkowski is at that point, but he’s been preparing for life without football for a while. He says he’s never spent a dime of the money he’s earned from the Patriots, opting to live solely off his endorsement deals. Gronkowski may have three years and $24 million remaining on his contract, but he’s seemingly built up enough of a financial cushion to stop torturing his body for half of the year.
Sometimes it’s impossible to convince football players to step aside. Wes Welker, for example, refuses to announce his retirement despite suffering what might be as many as 10 concussions in his career. But Gronkowski should at least consider it. The touchdowns he would leave on the field pale in comparison to the life he might ruin if he keeps going under the knife.
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