Rob Gronkowski has made a career of dramatic catches. At his best, he’s a blur of speed, power and enviable size.
But this season it’s been different. His numbers are down and perhaps his most memorable play came on defense.
Here’s what went down when the Patriots played the Miami Dolphins in early December: With New England ahead and 7 seconds left in the game, Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw a 17-yard pass over the middle. Then, two laterals led to a game-winning touchdown by running back Kenyan Drake.
The last line of defense? Gronkowski. He stumbled going after Drake. He looked old and slow. At the last moment, he made an awkward goal-line dive at Drake. He never had a chance.
Describing what happened on the play, Gronkowski said, “They changed it up a little bit and I did sucky.”
Fair or not, that final play in Miami has come to symbolize Gronkowski’s physical decline.
Now it’s playoff time for the Patriots. On Sunday at Gillette Stadium, Tom Brady and company will take on the Los Angeles Chargers. A third straight Super Bowl appearance is on the line this playoffs, and a lot depends on the play of the tight end.
Statistically, Gronkowski’s coming off his worst regular season. He’s not the Gronk, the dominant offensive player, that Patriots fans have come to know and love.
Nine injury-riddled NFL seasons have taken a toll. From playing through an ankle sprain in the Super Bowl to a forearm fracture to back surgeries to an ACL tear to concussions — the list goes on and it all adds up.
When you ask NFL players how they feel the morning after games, they often say it’s like they’ve been in a car wreck.
But Gronkowski is not unique among NFL players. The brutal nature of the game ages players at an alarming rate and leaves many with lifelong physical damage.
"I always say you age in dog years as a player,” said former NFL linebacker Isaiah Kacyvenski, who played for seven seasons and helped the Seattle Seahawks reach Super Bowl 40. “Everybody sees game day. But the amount of time put in in the offseason and the practices leading up to the game … over a long period of time it’s just massive wear and tear on joints [and] the body in general."
Kacyvenski remembers how he’d ride a high from the game on Sunday. Then, Monday morning, he’d find it difficult to get out of bed.
Now, at 41, he’s a Boston-based venture capitalist and co-founder of sports-focused Will Ventures. He’s also looking at two knee replacements in the not-too-distant future.
When you ask NFL players how they feel the morning after games, they often say it’s like they’ve been in a car wreck. They’re stiff and every joint in their body aches. But they’ve got to get back to work.
“You just got in a car accident,” said Hall of Fame NFL broadcaster Andrea Kremer. “Now, you’re not just getting back into a car, you’re getting back in a car that’s going to have another accident. So, you know how you’re going to feel and you have to be in a position where you’re mentally strong enough to just overcome it.”
Over 35 years covering the league, Kremer has talked to dozens of players about the physical toll the game takes. For one story, she got Hall of Fame running back Jerome Bettis to mount a camera inside his bedroom.
“We were there when he woke up and got out of bed the day after a game and it was the proverbial picture says a thousand words,” Kremer said. “It was literally like he was a 100-year-old man trying to move his body and to get up just to walk to the bathroom and then coming down the stairs. It was brutal.”
And it’s not something players like to discuss, at least not when they’re still in the game. Earlier this season, after he returned from a back injury, Gronk was asked how his body responded to playing a game for the first time in almost four weeks.
Revealing very little at a press conference, he said, “Good, I feel good. You know the football wear and tear. You’re never going to leave a game going, ‘Aaaaaahaahaa.’ ”
That’s his way of saying you’re never going to leave a game feeling great. It’s the same for every NFL player.
“It’s a young man’s game, it’s a fast man’s game, and it’s a healthy man’s game,” said Dr. Walter Lowe, an orthopedic surgeon who serves as the Houston Texans team doctor. “Once you start to fall out of that, they start to look not like the stars they were before and their careers start to end.
“Gronk is the same as a bunch of big guys when you’ve had back issues, when you’ve had medical issues that affect the ability to play. Pretty soon you’re not yourself. And when you’re not yourself in that league, there’s somebody good standing right behind you to take your place."
On Sunday, Gronkowski will be back at tight end and, for better or worse, he’ll be judged against the player he used to be.
This segment aired on January 11, 2019.