Late Sunday night, in the chaotic aftermath of Super Bowl LV, Rob Gronkowski kept finding the camera—or maybe it was the other way around. “Robby G! Love you, baby!” Tom Brady yelled from the podium during his postgame press conference. “It’s time to go turn up, man,” Gronkowski enthusiastically instructed Mike Evans as he interrupted the wide receiver’s interview. All of it made me smile. Maybe it did the same for you, too. This was Gronk as he should be, boisterous and having a good time. The genus Gronkowski can feel put on this earth to do two things: excel athletically and have fun doing it. Gronk was thriving.
Watching Gronk work the room, crack jokes, and celebrate made me remember a different scene from two years ago, the last time he won a Super Bowl. It was in Atlanta, after the Patriots beat the Rams 13-3. Gronkowski had caught the longest pass of the night, a 29-yard reception that set up the game’s only touchdown, but he was spent. He’d taken a devastating hit to his right quad, which was swollen and throbbing as he walked slowly into a celebrating locker room. His whole body was stiff, so he struggled to get his jersey off. To reach his foot to untie his shoelaces, Gronkowski bent over, picked his leg up, and then set it down on a stool. He barely slept that night from the pain. The thigh bruise was bleeding internally; over the following month Gronkowski had a liter of blood removed from that leg. His doctors told him it was a hospital record. He announced his retirement soon after that.
“I remember that win. I was so done coming off the field,” Gronkowski said Sunday night. “I was like, ‘I am just glad it’s over.’ The pain I was in, too. It felt great to be a champ, but it felt great to be done.”
Gronk feels great now, but he doesn’t feel done.
“I’ll remain unretired,” he said. “I’m a free agent.”
The 2020 season and postseason taught us what it is for Gronk to be back, all the way back. His return threatened to be a sad attempt to squeeze a few more drops from a career that had been wrung dry too soon due to injuries; instead, it was the only season of his career in which he played 20 games. The only thing that has ever come between Gronkowski and utter dominance is his own body—the outsize frame that makes him so hard to defend also crashes to the ground hard and puts his knees in the prime target zone for hits from smaller defenders. It’s hard to think of another season when he was so healthy so late in the year. After a year off, Gronkowski came out of retirement last April to help Brady add to his legacy in Tampa. He ended up adding to his own in the process.
Gronkowski totaled 623 receiving yards and scored seven touchdowns during the regular season while mostly serving as a blocker for the Bucs—“a small, big part,” he called it. It always felt like his rapport with Brady would pay off late in the year in a critical moment, though, and sure enough, Gronkowski caught two touchdowns in the Super Bowl, a feat that tied the Buccaneers’ record for the most receiving playoff touchdowns by one player in franchise history. The first came on a clever play design in which Gronkowski leaked out into the end zone instead of wrapping inside to block, as he’d usually done this season and the Chiefs were likely expecting. The second came when Gronkowski improvised on a route to extend it after noticing that Brady hadn’t been able to get the ball out as quickly as he’d anticipated.
“That goes back to the chemistry we’ve built during our whole career,” Gronkowski told SiriusXM Radio on Sunday night.
The word “our” sticks out. Brady and Gronkowski are now tied at the hip in a way that Brady and, say, Julian Edelman or James White are not. Gronkowski was the partner Brady chose to bring along as he set out to conquer new territory. Gronkowski’s career body of work is not akin to Brady’s—nobody’s is—but they mirror each other in a number of ways, including using this season to add to a mounting pile of evidence that there’s never been a more accomplished player at their respective positions. That seems more obvious the closer one gets to Gronkowski.
“There’s a lot of talk about what Tom has done for this locker room, and it’s all warranted, but what Gronk has done for this locker room is equally as amazing. Just a great teammate and loves life,” Bucs general manager Jason Licht said two weeks ago.
“I didn’t know about Gronk’s work ethic. It’s unbelievable,” coach Bruce Arians added.
Gronkowski is now no. 2 all time to Jerry Rice with the most receiving touchdowns in Super Bowl history. He has five, Rice has eight. He is third on the all-time touchdowns list for a tight end, behind Antonio Gates (116) and Tony Gonzalez (111). Gronkowski has tallied his 86 in 131 career games—Gates played 236 and Gonzalez 270. He’s sixth in receiving yards behind Gonzalez, Jason Witten, Gates, Shannon Sharpe, and Greg Olsen, who have all played significantly more games. Gronkowski has been eclipsed, in terms of current production, by the tight end on the other Super Bowl team—Kansas City’s Travis Kelce—and by younger players at the position like George Kittle, but he outplayed Kelce on Sunday. Even Kittle, who offers the best combination of blocking and receiving talent in today’s NFL, doesn’t match the unstoppable quality Gronkowski had at his athletic peak, when he’d score touchdowns with safeties draped on each shoulder like barnacles on a humpback whale. They are somewhat biased, but both Brady and Bill Belichick believe that Gronkowski is the best to ever play his position.
It is a little funny to consider Brady and Gronkowski on these mirrored paths similarly infused with narrative power, since concern over legacy and narrative seems to be one place where they diverge. Brady is calculated, Gronkowski is freewheeling. Where Brady seems consumed with conquest and destiny, Gronk just wants to have a good time. That these individual desires converged in Tampa may have been evidence that it wasn’t just a power grab for Brady or an ego-driven quest to succeed without Belichick. Gronkowski doesn’t care about those things in the same way Brady does and he still wanted to be there. In part, Brady seems to keep playing year after year because he doesn’t know what he would do without football or what outlet could fit his particular zeal. Gronkowski had found plenty of outlets during his year off: He lost weight, partnered with a line of CBD products he said helped relieve his pain, went on The Masked Singer to perform “I’m Too Sexy,” and hosted WrestleMania. During last year’s Super Bowl week, Gronkowski hosted a massive party on the beach in Miami where he wore neon and twerked for his guests.
Then he unretired and won the Super Bowl. One can only imagine that neon and twerking were back in the mix Sunday night. Gronk isn’t Brady, but he’s a legend in his own right.