It was a bittersweet Maine Maple Sunday for Patriots Nation, with tight end Rob Gronkowski announcing his retirement. But after nine years of rewarding fans with touchdowns and punishing his body with a long list of injuries, Gronk’s decision makes sense.
The stats that number 87 put up over his incredibly productive, if abridged, professional football career are likely to land him in the Hall of Fame: 521 catches, 79 touchdowns, nearly 8,000 receiving yards, three Super Bowl championships, and a host of individual records.
Perhaps an even more daunting list, however, is the number of injuries he’s stacked up over the years: a fractured vertebrae, ACL and MCL tears in his knee, two concussions, a broken forearm and a sprained ankle, among others.
We shouldn’t feel too bad for a guy who’s retiring before he turns 30, but we also shouldn’t hold it against Gronkowski for prioritizing his own future — and health — over a chance to defend the Patriots’ Super Bowl title next season.
Gronk has literally broken his back for the team, and undoubtedly put himself at risk for increasing health complications in the future. He may be physically able to keep playing right now, but, as with all other professional athletes, he gets to make the personal decision of when to call it a career.
The fans may want more, but in an age where we have increasing clarity about the long-term impact football and other contact sports have on athletes’ bodies and minds, players shouldn’t sacrifice their well-being.
Gronkowski didn’t specifically mention injuries in his retirement announcement on Instagram, but he discussed football’s physical grind in an interview leading up to the Patriots’ Super Bowl win earlier this year.
“Try to imagine getting hit all the time and trying to be where you want to be every day in life. It’s tough. It’s difficult. To take hits to the thigh, to take hits to your head, abusing your body, isn’t what your brain wants,” he said in January. “When your body is abused, it can bring down your mood. You have to be able to deal with that, too, throughout the season. You have to be able to deal with that going into games.”
With increased awareness of and league attention to the dangers of head trauma, decision’s like Gronkowski’s really shouldn’t come as a surprise. Studies continue to shed light on the link between concussions (and hits to the head generally) and the brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE. Mounting examples of retired NFL players struggling with health issues later in life or being definitively diagnosed with CTE after they’ve died must surely hit home for players today as they weigh their futures.
As a physical blocker and receiver with a hulking 6-foot-6 frame, Gronkowski has been one of the biggest targets for defenders across the league. And all those hits unquestionably add up. His retirement statement may have focused on the positive experiences he had as a Patriot, but there’s little doubt that long-term health concerns factored into his decision. And for good reason.
On Monday, Gronkowski’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus, told ESPN he’d discussed the possibility of the tight end coming out of retirement sometime in the future to start playing again. Rosenhaus was careful to note that was his idea, not something that Gronkowski was actively entertaining, so we shouldn’t get our hopes up.
Patriot fans would surely love to see him out there catching passes, blocking and spiking the football again. But after years of sacrificing his body, Gronk doesn’t owe us anything.