The first time Rob Gronkowski retired -- three years, a team switch and a Super Bowl title ago -- it came in the wake of a sobering season, one in which he had mused aloud about the hits he had taken and how they had affected his mood. The life of the party was leaving on a down note, and taking all the fun with him.
Happily, a year off and a good sales job by Tom Brady convinced Gronkowski to give it another go, this time in Tampa, and he walked away for the second time on Tuesday, seemingly less exhausted and more satisfied. So much so that within minutes of his announcement, his own agent, Drew Rosenhaus, said he wouldn't be surprised if Gronkowski took a call from Brady and returned by midseason.
That nobody wants to say a final farewell to perhaps the greatest tight end in history is understandable. Last season, when he played in just 12 games while battling through injuries, he still had 55 receptions for 802 yards (his fifth-best yardage total in a season) and six touchdowns. In 2020, he played every game, and was dominant in the Super Bowl, with six receptions and two touchdowns in the victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. It was a throwback performance, the kind that Brady and the Bucs might seek -- albeit in limited doses -- as the 2022 season develops.
Gronkowski, at his greatest in his prime years with the Patriots, was an unstoppable force. Watching him rampage through a defense with the ball in his hand was like watching a runaway horse, all energy and power. He was like that in just enough spurts with the Bucs to imagine that, even now, he could still summon those gleeful romps again if he was asked.
The Bucs had clearly appealed to Gronkowski. The player-friendly rhythms there suited him. His body was preserved for games. In his retirement announcement, Gronkowski said that in college he was asked what his dream job would be and where it was located. He wrote that he wanted to be a professional football player in Tampa Bay. The sunny weather was the top reason. Gronkowski said he had forgotten about that assignment until two years ago, but that his experience had far exceeded what he had hoped for when he completed that college assignment.
Perhaps best of all, it was a joy to watch Gronkowski all the way to the end. It had not been that way when he retired the first time around. His body had begun to betray him and his production plummeted. He caught just three touchdown passes in 2018, his final year in New England. The Patriots won the Super Bowl that season, but it felt as if Gronkowski, wearing his pain so publicly, had faded in front of us. It was hard to watch and even harder to accept that Gronkowski was finished.
That's why this renaissance in Tampa was so delightful. Brady and Gronkowski revived their buddy-movie vibe -- if you have not seen the Tommy & Gronky take a friendship test video from the Bucs, watch it. Bruce Arians smartly deployed Gronkowski when he needed him most. It was the perfect cap on Gronkowski's extraordinary career, one that will put him in the Hall of Fame, whenever he is eligible (a player or coach must be retired for at least five years before they can be considered).
When Gronkowski retired the first time, you hoped for the best -- that his body would heal, that he would recover, that he would be happy with his decision. There was a whiff of sadness then, and an acknowledgement that he had been beaten up. The Bucs years worked wonders, just as he had projected in that college essay, and they felt like the sweet reward for a career that had taken its toll. Like all good desserts, it left you wanting a little bit more.
If Gronkowski's announcement Tuesday, and Rosenhaus' subsequent suggestion, merely mean Gronk wants to skip training camp -- well, he wouldn't be the first player. That's not where the fun is and Gronkowski was all about fun -- he participated in a dance-off with a player's young daughter at a Super Bowl media appearance, inspired erotic literature and once did a Tide Pods ad in which he declared, correctly, "I'm big and awesome!" Brady's return from his own retirement opens the door for one more revival of what has been the best tight end show in football for more than a decade.
In the end zone, in the playoffs, with Brady. It is where Gronkowski has thrived and it is why we hope this retirement doesn't stick much longer than Brady's.