Rob Gronkowski has squeezed every ounce of fun out of his NFL career, playing with a sense of joy and passion that few other players have experienced.
There is almost a childlike sense of wonder when you watch “Gronk” whirl around on a football field, catching passes, crashing into defenders, scoring touchdowns and performing his touchdown spike, in which he does his best to break the football into pieces.
But at 29 and with far too many big hits behind him, it is a far more subdued Gronkowski who is readying himself for Super Bowl LIII against the Rams. He is much more circumspect about his future — a year after he first discussed the possibility of retirement — and you get the sense that this indeed will be the last time we see the All-Pro tight end play an NFL game.
You get the sense that, win or lose, Gronkowski is ready to walk off into his football sunset. That after all the injuries — some of them bumps and bruises, others requiring knee, back and forearm surgeries, and still others resulting in concussions — it will be over on Sunday night.
“The season is a grind. It’s up and down,” he said. “I’m not going to lie and sit here and say every week is the best. Not at all. You go up. You go down. You can take some serious hits.”
He wonders what the future will be like.
“Try to imagine getting hit all the time and trying to be where you want to be every day in life,” he said. “It’s tough. It’s difficult. To take hits to the thigh, to take hits to your head, abusing your body, isn’t what your brain wants. When your body is abused, it can bring down your mood. You have to be able to deal with that, too, throughout the season. You have to be able to deal with that going into games.”
Gronkowski has said for weeks that he will take some time after the season to decide his future. He wants to clear his mind and come to a careful decision, one he can reconcile and be comfortable making.
After all, once he walks away, there most likely is no turning back. Not at his age, not with this kind of wear and tear, and not with this kind of concern about his well-being.
Bill Parcells used to say that older players who start to think about retirement are, for all practical purposes, retired. In a sport that demands such brute strength and emotional resolve to grind through the regular season and playoffs, you almost need to live in denial. When you begin to worry about getting hurt, that often is when you do get hurt.
And right now, Gronk seems to be in that frame of mind.
He has made more money than he ever imagined and almost certainly will be wealthy for the rest of his life. He has won Super Bowls and been voted to All-Pro teams and partied to his heart’s content. But he at least has the wherewithal and good sense to make intelligent decisions about his future. And if football is not a part of that future, then so be it.
“I’m really satisfied with how my whole career has been, super-satisfied,” he said. “There’s ups and downs, but the thing is always coming back. There’s so many examples of great players here before me, when I was young, to look up to, and see how they bounce back when something adverse comes their way.”
He has been asked again and again this week if he’ll retire, and he won’t offer a definitive answer.
“Yes, no, maybe so!” he said.
But you don’t need to read between the lines all that carefully to realize that this could be the end.
And if it is, then good for Gronk that he has the good sense to know the time is right.