Rob Gronkowski is easily underestimated.
No, not as a football player, where he was unquestionably one of the best of his era. During his nine seasons with the New England Patriots, he single-handedly redefined what it meant to be a tight end, and made a case for himself as arguably the greatest to ever play the position, combining wide-receiver speed with offensive-lineman strength. Gronkowski could block with the best of the big guys, run routes and catch the ball with the best of the fast guys, all while playing through an assortment of grisly injuries that would have felled a lesser athlete.
If you’re wondering about the difference between those championship Patriots teams and the one that fizzled out in the last quarter of this past season, it’s true that Tom Brady didn’t look like himself, and he didn’t enjoy the benefit of a consistent running game. Father Time may have played a role, but both of those issues were also directly connected to the absence of the player who retired at age 29 following the 2018 season.
As Super Bowl LIV approaches, there will be lots of talk about Travis Kelce and George Kittle, the two best tight ends in football now, the gold standard at their position.
Stylistically, Gronkowski begat them both, and that’s why, the minute he’s eligible, he’ll have a place in Canton.
But that’s the guy in the helmet.
It’s Gronk, the personality, who is often dismissed as a kind of hyper-athletic cartoon character. Playing in the “Do your job” Patriots’ culture for a grimly single-minded head coach and with a quarterback who rarely displays human emotions, Gronkowski by contrast seemed like a hyperactive kid at recess. Follow his various off-field exploits on social media, and it’s easy to imagine the son of suburban Buffalo as a member of the Bills Mafia had his playing career not panned out.
The truth is, you don’t survive in Belichick World if you don’t pay attention to detail, and you don’t manage the business side of your life successfully if it’s all just a big game. Gronkowski thrived in the Patriots’ system, banked his player salary while living off his endorsement money, walked away from football with mind and body intact, and is now pursuing various business interests and endorsements while thoroughly enjoying himself.
Among Gronkowski’s current projects is a company that markets CBD products for pain relief. He says that with the help of CBD and following a year out of football, he is living pain free for the first time since he was a teenager. A football comeback isn’t out of the question, but Gronkowski doesn’t seem like someone desperate to put himself through the physical toll, or lost without the uniform.
In person he is exactly what you would expect – gregarious, fun, physically imposing.
And also what you might not expect – a guy who has figured it out.
In the latest episode of Open Invitation with Stephen Brunt, Sportsnet’s award-winning journalist sits down with former Patriots tight end and NFL star Rob Gronkowski, who redefined the position and cemented himself as one of the most successful offensive players in his generation.