Rob Gronkowski was worried about having chronic traumatic encephalopathy, then later said he cured his traumatic brain injury. He was the picture of a football player edging toward the end of his career, suffering a brutal hit while playing against the Rams in Super Bowl LIII that made him look beaten and worn. He spoke about how he just wanted to enjoy his life instead of being pummeled week after week.
He came back.
He was a punchline.
Until he very much wasn’t.
Gronkowski was away for a year until Tom Brady’s migration to the Buccaneers brought him out of hibernation. Though he’s been perfectly productive for a 31-year-old in his 10th year in the league, his true value on the gridiron was on full display as he tried to earn his fourth ring Sunday — and he got it when the Buccaneers beat Kansas City, 31-9.
When Brady had other options, he chose his old tight end. He coaxed Gronkowski out of retirement, and Gronkowski showed why it was a good idea.
When others wondered how the Buccaneers would ever find a response to Kansas City’s explosive offense, Gronkowski and Brady answered the same old way.
The result: The pair’s 13th and 14th postseason touchdowns, the most in NFL history, beating Joe Montana and Jerry Rice (12). This was their fifth Super Bowl together. In the last three, they combined for 23 catches, 297 yards and three touchdowns.
"Big-time players making big-time plays," Brady said. "So I just loved what they [Gronkowski and Antonio Brown] did, what they added to the team. Gronk is an unbelievable player, teammate, talent [and has a great] work ethic."
Said Gronkowski, "We’ve got so many superstars on this team, but no one’s head is ever too big this year. It just happened to be me who had the touchdown passes thrown to me. You never knew who it was going to be because we had so much talent."
The first Brady-Gronkowski connection Sunday gave the Buccaneers the lead for good. Four plays after a 16-yard pass to Brown, Brady hit Gronkowski for an 8-yard touchdown in the left corner of the end zone to put the Bucs up 7-3.
Brady found Gronkowski again with 6:05 left in the second quarter. This time it was a 17-yard TD pass on first-and-10 after Ryan Succop’s field goal was taken off the board because of an offside call on Kansas City. A waiting Gronkowski easily beat L’Jarius Sneed for a 14-3 lead.
Gronkowski also set up the Bucs’ fourth touchdown midway through the third quarter on a 25-yard pass down the middle. That created the opportunity for Leonard Fournette’s 27-yard touchdown run and a 28-9 lead.
Gronkowski caught six passes (from seven targets) for 67 yards and the two TDs.
"Those two guys brought something extremely special because they’ve been there and done it," Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians said. "You see two totally different personalities doing it the same way."
This is the first time since 2011 that Gronkowski played every regular-season game. He had 45 catches for 623 yards and seven touchdowns. Though that’s less production than in previous seasons, he was one of the Buccaneers’ most effective blockers this year.
"When you’re down and out, you want him with you," Brady said. "I think that speaks to him as a teammate, as a person, and I love playing with him. I’ve known him for a long time and I’m just so proud of all of his accomplishments. He’s an amazing guy."