By Terrance Turner
April 21, 2020 (updated Dec. 26)
Last night, former Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski appeared on “Watch What Happens Live” (at Home). Host Andy Cohen said rumors were swirling that Gronkowski wanted to join ex-Patriots teammate Tom Brady on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Cohen asked Gronkowski if he was considering coming out of retirement to join Brady on the Bucs.
Gronkowski (aka “Gronk” to fans and teammates) responded equivocally. “Andy, you wanna know what’s so great, man? The day that I retired — within 24 hours — there were already rumors that I was coming out of retirement,” Gronk said. “I’m feelin’ good right now; I’m happy where I’m at–“
“You’re done,” Cohen interjected.
“You just never know, man,” Gronk replied.
“Oh, you never know,” Cohen repeated.
“You never know,” Gronk said. “I’m not totally done.”
He isn’t. The next day, NFL reporter Ian Rapoport confirmed a stunning update:
Earlier this afternoon, NFL insider Ian Rapoport tweeted: “Retired #Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski has told New England that he’s interested in playing football again — and would want to do it with the Bucs and Tom Brady. A trade would have to be worked out for this to happen.” Rapoport later added that Brady was interested in such a deal, too. At 3:21 pm, Rapoport confirmed that the Patriots were trading Gronk and a seventh-round pick to Tampa Bay in exchange for a 4th-round pick.
Gronkowski, 30, played the entirety of his NFL career with the New England Patriots. During the 2011 season, Gronk had 17 touchdown catches — the most ever by a tight end in one season. A Week 13 score was classified as a rushing touchdown, giving him a total of 18 TDs. He became the first (and only) tight end EVER to lead the league in touchdowns. The next season, he tacked on 11 more touchdown receptions, making it his third season in a row with 10 or more TDs. (He would achieve that impressive touchdown feat again in the 2014 and ’15 seasons.)
He won three championships with the New England Patriots in 2015, 2017, and 2019. (He told Cohen that the last match — the 13-3 snoozefest vs. the Rams — was the easiest to win.) It was his 29-yard catch late in Super Bowl LIII that set up the game’s only touchdown (courtesy of teammate Sony Michel). That catch helped him set two more records. His 23 receptions and 297 receiving yards are the most by a tight end in Super Bowl history.
As news broke of the trade, Andy Cohen added another credit to his multi-hyphenate career:
Gronk’s return to the NFL was something of a surprise move, after a storied career riddled with injuries. “Since 2012, he has, among other things, fractured the same forearm twice, fractured a vertebrae, torn his A.C.L. and M.C.L., and suffered from a bruised lung, herniated discs, various ankle injuries, and at least two concussions,” wrote New Yorker columnist Ian Crouch in March 2019.
Gronkowski retired in 2019 after a painful quad injury sustained during the Super Bowl that year. An NBC Sports reporter spoke with Gronkowski after the game, and Gronk showed him the ugly aftermath of a second-quarter hit to the thigh. The reporter noted the swelling: “It looked stupidly big. Swollen from just above the knee for about 20 inches.”
Gronkowski recounted the injury’s impact in August, at a press conference for CBDMedic. “I got done with the game; I could barely walk,” he told the audience. “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,” Gronkowski recalled. “And then, for four weeks, I couldn’t even sleep for more than 20 minutes a night, after a Super Bowl win. It didn’t make much sense to me,” he said. “And I was like, ‘Damn, this sucks’.” During that period, he said, Gronkowski had 1,000 milliliters of blood drained from his swollen thigh.
It was that bruising physical toll that drove his retirement — along with the emotional toll. “I want to be clear to my fans: I needed to recover. I was not in a good place. Football was bringing me down,” Gronkowski said, choking up, “and I didn’t like it. I was losing that joy in life — like, the joy.”
With the help of rest and CBDMedic, however, he began to recover. “I feel great, and I am pain-free. I truly believe I can get to another level with my body,” he said in August, “and I’m just in the first stage right now. And when that time comes down in the future, if I have the desire to play football again, if I feel passionate about football again, if I feel like I need to be out there on the field, I will go back to football. But as of right now, that is not the case. It could be the case in six months; it could be the case in two years. Could be the case in three years. Could be the case in three months.”
In the end, it took roughly eight months for Gronkowski to turn the corner. And today, the day after Christmas, Gronkowski gave fans a gift for the ages. The Buccaneers played the Detroit Lions today; QB Tom Brady opened the game by throwing a 33-yard touchdown to Gronkowski. It’s the 96th career touchdown between Brady and Gronk.
That score put the Buccaneers ahead 7-0. By halftime, it was 34-0! After throwing for 348 yards and four touchdowns (!), Brady rested in the second half. Backup QB Blaine Gabbert took over — and opened the third quarter with a thrilling throw to Gronkowski. The ball sailed from the 30-yard line; Gronk caught it for his second touchdown of the day, to make it 41-0.