Winning the Super Bowl is the pinnacle of many NFL careers, a goal only so few ever accomplish. Rob Gronkowski experienced this feeling three times during his nine seasons as a pro. But what was supposed to be a jubilant moment when the New England Patriots captured the trophy again in February, turned into one of pain and overwhelming emotion after a game that would later turn out to be the last of Gronkowski’s career.
The cameras captured only the happiness: Gronkowski dancing with his teammates, and cracking jokes with his ever-stoic head coach, Bill Belichick, about partying late into the night. Behind the happy-go-lucky facade, however, was an emotionally and physically drained player who had decided earlier that day — during the game against the Los Angeles Rams — that the Super Bowl would be his final appearance on an NFL field.
“In the Super Bowl, about a couple of minutes in the second quarter, I caught a pass on the left side, cut over, a linebacker took me right out, right here in my quad I flipped in the air and I knew my quad was done,” Gronkowski said during a press conference on Tuesday. “I knew right there and then it was my last game... Super Bowl game, just give it all you had. Game went on, I got done with the game and I could barely walk.”
On the field, Gronkowski looked like his usual dominant self despite the injury. He made one of the greatest catches of his career on the game’s only touchdown drive — a diving 29-yard reception that set up the Patriots with a first down from the 2-yard line — and finished the game having played all 72 offensive snaps. But as the adrenaline wore down, so did his body and the bruises sustained that day and over the last nine years became evident.
“I go to the after party, I sit down and I’m just chilling all day, like the rest of the night until 3 am,” recalled Gronkowski. “I try to go to bed, I slept for five minutes that night. I couldn’t even think. I was in tears, in my bed, after a Super Bowl victory. It didn’t make that much sense to me. And then, for four weeks, I couldn’t even sleep for more than 20 minutes a night after a Super Bowl win. And I was like, ‘Damn, this sucks.’ It didn’t feel good.”
“After the game I was like, ‘Ah, whatever, it’ll be like a two-week injury.’ No, this one was deep,” the 30-year-old continued. “Internal bleeding. I took out 200 milliliters of blood four weeks later. Then another week later, I took out 500 milliliters of blood, and then I took out 300 milliliters of blood from my quad. So that’s a total of a thousand milliliters I took out of my quad over a four-week period after the Super Bowl.”
Seven weeks after the title game, Gronkowski announced his retirement. He had invested all he had in the game of football year-in and year-out for his entire adult life. It made him the most dominant player the tight end position had ever seen and both a three-time champion and a lock to make the Hall of Fame in a few years. But as he revealed on Tuesday while fighting back tears, it also was bringing him down physically and mentally.
“I’m telling you, it’s not normal,” Gronkowski said during his press conference about being caught in a cycle of injury and rehab for much of the last few years — not without also displaying his trademark humor, though: “It was like record-breaking at the hospital. You know I like to break records. I think I broke records on and off the field non-stop with injuries. It’s just what I do.”
Nowadays, five months removed from his retirement and with the Super Bowl but a distant memory, Gronkowski has a new perspective on the adversity he faced during his career up to his final game: “You can’t just sit on the couch and say, ‘My leg hurts. My shoulder hurts. My ankle hurts,’ whatever it is. You’ve got to go out there and you’ve got to search for it. You’ve got to search for answers. You’ve got to search for what’s best for your body.”
“You’ve got to search for what’s best for you mentally. That’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been going out there searching. I’ve been trying new things and it’s been an amazing journey,” he continued. And one can only feel good about what he had to say. “I truly believe going through those tough times, nine years — off the field, on the field — has brought me to this point and I believe I’m on the right path in my life.”