At age 29 and after nine stellar seasons in the National Football League, star tight-end Rob Gronkowski is calling it a career. This is undoubtedly a tragedy for the NFL, the New England Patriots, and for fans of the sport. However, for the player personally it is a blessing.
Whilst excelling on the field in college, Gronkowski acquired the reputation of being a ‘party boy.’ This ultimately led to him falling several spots in the 2010 draft to the 42nd pick, a spot nowhere near indicative of his talent or past performances. Interestingly, despite being known as one of the strictest, no-nonsense coaches in the league, it was Bill Belichick who decided to put his faith in Gronk, and the ‘party boy’ repaid the favour in full over the next nine seasons, on his way to becoming one of the best tight-ends of all time.
For an athlete standing at 6’6 and weighing just under twenty stone, Gronk’s combination of strength and speed made him virtually unstoppable. In addition, his mind-boggling mix of incredible size and dexterity made him a very effective receiver, even when facing double, or at times triple coverage from defenders. After nine seasons and 115 games, Gronkowski caught 521 passes, resulting in 79 career touchdowns. The numbers, whilst spectacular, do not take into account the dominating presence Rob Gronkowski had as a pass-protector and blocker. Tom Brady’s life has certainly been made easier over the past nine seasons due to the protection given to him by his most trusted ally. Furthermore, an annual players-only poll to determine the top 100 competitors each season saw Gronkowski selected in all of the past seven seasons, thus showing the respect garnered by Gronk by his peers. He is also a sure-fire lock for the Hall of Fame.
However, whilst it is possible to list Gronkowski’s endless accomplishments over his nine year NFL career, this tragically only paints half the picture. The other half of the tale is the countless injuries endured by the athlete – injuries that even individually could have ended a career at a moment’s notice.
Rule changes over the past several years have attempted to reduce the number of defensive plays made above the shoulders, a term known as headhunting, in an effort to reduce concussions and other trauma to the brain. Whilst this is a positive step towards making the game safer, it unfortunately saw puzzled defenders begin targeting Gronkowski’s already vulnerable legs. In December 2013, a nasty challenge from Cleveland Browns safety, T.J. Ward tore Gronkowski’s MCL and ACL simultaneously. The injury was so horrific it even resulted in a concussion, the injury the NFL is so desperate to banish from the game. It is shocking that he was in this game in the first place, as in the same year, the tight-end had already fractured both his forearm and vertebrae, with both injuries requiring surgery.
Unfortunately, the list of injuries for Gronkowski is extensive and spans his entire body. In addition to his remarkable career statistics is another much more grisly number. Eight surgeries in nine seasons. Whilst Gronkowski has given everything and more to the New England Patriots organisation, it is simply not realistic or fair to expect him to continue at this rate. At age 29, with substantial injuries to his arms, hips, knees, ankles, back and brain, Gronk’s body resembles more that of Darth Vader than a professional athlete. Although he has shown brilliance this season that indicates he could continue to play at an elite level, for his own safety and well-being he has made the mature choice to hang up his boots.
Fortunately, despite having a reputation as a party animal and a self-proclaimed goofball, Gronkowski has often shown great maturity and astute decision-making over the course of his career. Whilst he is certainly retiring young, Gronk likely will not need to worry about money, as supposedly he has yet to spend a single cent of his NFL salary since joining the league in 2010. Rather, he chose to live very comfortably exclusively off of his endorsements. In nine years, Gronkowski has amassed $54 million in salary, all of which he elected to save, demonstrating his awareness of his own vulnerability. Considering that the average NFL career is not even four seasons in the league, it is paramount that athletes begin to take into account the brevity of their playing days and plan accordingly.
However, despite his injuries being severe, in a twisted sense he is fortunate that he is displaying his war wounds. The most serious injury that is blighting football is the concussion crisis. Whilst Gronk has received two moderate concussions in his career (that we know about), it appears he has mostly escaped the most dangerous aspect of the game. For now. Unfortunately, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), the brain disease closely associated with concussions, is almost undetectable in living hosts and can usually only be confirmed post-mortem. The symptoms include, but are not limited to mood swings, attention disorders, depression, speech and motor disorders, and suicidality. CTE is currently the biggest threat to football players, and the NFL itself. Thousands of former players are currently involved in legal proceedings against the league for injuries or potential future mental issues related to their playing days. As of 2018, $500 million has already been paid out by the NFL to former players and their estates. Will Smith’s 2015 film Concussion attempted to bring the devastating disease to light yet it still lives in the shadows, unbeknownst to countless athletes who don a helmet for the first time daily. Research published by JAMA discovered that CTE was present in 99% of the brains of deceased NFL players examined. This horrifying figure presents a grim depiction of life after the game, and the bleak sacrifices players made, knowingly or otherwise.
Elsewhere in the UK last week, Leicester Tigers Back Row, David Denton has been ruled out of action for at least the rest of the season. The injury occurred back in October, yet the decision to officially sideline the player after uncertainties over his well-being has finally been announced. With Denton still experiencing symptoms related to the concussion endured five months ago, the move is being widely applauded within the Rugby community. Unfortunately, this cautious culture is not as widespread in the United States, as athletes from high-school to the NFL are routinely rushed back into action whilst still suffering from the effects of concussions. The NFL has committed to stamping out this practice but with billions of dollars on the line, unfortunately players have suffered by not taking the take to fully recover. Whilst concussions sadly do also occur in Rugby, they appear to be more prevalent in the USA. This may seem bizarre as Rugby players wear minimal protection (a mouthguard and possibly a scrum cap) in comparison with American Football’s knee pads, hip pads, shoulder pads, and of course the iconic helmet. However, often the perceived protection from the labourious equipment provides players with an ill-advised aura of invincibility, and can actually lead to more injuries. The second concussion of Gronkowski’s career was a direct result of helmet to helmet contact, for example. There is a case to be made that stripping back on some of the “protection” would somehow actually make the game safer.
Ultimately, the example set by Gronkowski is one that should be followed by athletes for generations to come. However, not all athletes are able to exercise the same comparative financial restraint as Gronkowski, and thus may not be in the same position to retire as young. Unfortunately for Gronk, the massive injuries he has sustained over his career will likely take their toll in later life. It is highly tragic, yet highly probable that by playing in his 20s, he will suffer daily in his 40s and 50s and he will be undergoing some kind of physical therapy for the rest of his life. However, by getting in and getting out, Gronkowski has suffered no-doubt greatly, but whilst his body may ail him in the coming years, his decision to retire now may very well have shielded him from catastrophic, potentially fatal mental issues in the future.
Congratulations on an amazing career, #87!
[Featured photo courtesy of Drew Litton at http://www.drewlitton.com]