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Gronk Returns to His Happy Place

Rob Gronkowski will have options for a second career once he decides to call it quits as a football player. A reality TV star? Celebrity brand spokesman? The WWE? But his return to the Patriots lineup Sunday reminded us that he is first and foremost Tom Brady’s best and favorite weapon—and perhaps the key figure in another New England Super Bowl run.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The thing about Gronk is you can see what comes next.

You can see him in Hollywood. You can see him in ads, in B movies, on reality TV, on kids’ programs, and yukking it up at awards shows. You can see him getting into horse racing, kind of, just for the hell of it, or else firing superweapons, also—thankfully—seemingly just for the hell of it. You can see him in the WWE ring, ducking between the ropes to join his friend Mojo Rawley—perhaps because he’s already done all of it:

But on Sunday, Rob Gronkowski did something that few people believed they’d see again: He looked like Gronk.

He’d been coy about whether he had even been catching passes from Tom Brady, telling reporters earlier in the week that he just didn’t know. But, of course, he must have been doing it, because in the first quarter, there he was in the end zone. Gronk hauled in a 34-yard touchdown, the 78th of his career and his first since September 9.

Since late 2016, when a career-best and league-leading 21-yards-per-reception season was cut short by surgery for a herniated disk, Gronkowski has seldom seemed like himself. At 29, the physical demands of being (a) a 6-foot-6 athletic marvel and (b) nearly a decade into a professional career as a piledriver have slowed him down. He has had ankle surgery (in 2012, days after playing the Super Bowl on it anyway) and arm surgery (four times over 2012 and 2013, after breaking and then rebreaking the same arm) and knee surgery (in 2013, on a torn ACL and MCL). He has missed time for groin and hamstring injuries and suffered a concussion in last winter’s AFC championship game only to play in the Super Bowl two weeks later. Then there’s that back: He missed his junior season at Arizona due to back surgery that left him limited in the NFL combine, then had back surgery again in 2013 and 2016.

You’d have been forgiven for thinking that the ledger wasn’t looking very promising these days, particularly if you happened to read the noisier sports pages. (“Rob Gronkowski, once the most feared tight end on the planet,” read a headline this month in The New York Daily News, “is a shell of his former self and his Patriot days are numbered.”) Going into Sunday, he’d missed two straight games; per the Daily News, “His body is 29 going on 92.”

And so you can look at all the rest of it and wonder: Why? There’s no one, after all, quite like Gronk. He autographs Tide Pods. He keeps things family friendly. (Kind of.) He crashed a Sean Spicer briefing. After the 2017 Super Bowl, he said of Patriots fans, and I quote, “I partied for them, I chugged beers for them, I had to. It’s just unbelievable, I love them so much.” He chugs beers thrown at him by strangers, and then spikes them:

He’s such an outsize figure off the field that it’s hard to imagine why he’d go on ravaging his body on it. He considered retirement this past offseason over concerns he would be traded before announcing his intent to play another season on Instagram in April. “[Tom] Brady’s my quarterback, that’s all,” he told reporters in September. “Wasn’t going anywhere without Brady.”

With the Patriots, he’s caught 506 passes for 7,683 yards and 78 touchdowns, including a notable no. 69, for which he insisted his mother was proud of him. (He has also, while in leprechaun disguise—leprecognito?—suggested he might try playing for the “69ers.”) Even in a season that, for him, amounts to a struggle, he’s averaging 63 yards per game, good for fourth in the league among tight ends. He remains a singularly effective weapon. Even at below his best, he is still a better option than most of what Brady has at his disposal.

And so it is, once more, our collective obligation to recognize that the Patriots could play in February, again. They could contend with the league’s other mega-offenses—the Rams, the Chiefs, the Saints—by dint of the connection between Brady and Gronk, again. That Gronk could, if his back and ankle and knee and arm and everything else hold up, ride in a parade, again. And then, maybe, he can get on with the rest of it.