November 13, 2019
According to multiple reports, New England Patriots owner, Robert Kraft has been trying to convince Rob Gronkowski to end his retirement and rejoin the team. Since Gronkowski has not yet submitted formal retirement papers, he would be eligible to return prior to November 30 if he chose to do so. Per NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, “Kraft told Gronkowski that he wants him to return for November, December, and a playoff run. If that happened, the team not only would welcome him back but would remain hopeful that it happens.” That conversation is said to have taken place in March when Gronkowski announced his retirement. As recently as October, Kraft expressed his desire for Gronk’s return, “We all love Gronk and I think the bottom line is, he hasn’t put his retirement papers in. We can pray and hope. … I think that’s a good academic argument that there is hope with Gronk.”
It’s unclear if additional overtures have been made, but if so, Kraft should take a few steps back and consider what he’s asking.
Gronk has been adamant when interviewed as to the toll his NFL career has taken. He entered the NFL with a vertebral disk hernia. In 2013 he suffered a vertebral fracture that required surgery and then had to undergo another back surgery in 2016 due to reinjury. Along the way, he’s had ankle and forearm surgeries, a torn ACL and MCL, two diagnosed concussions and myriads of other painful injuries that didn’t result in surgery.
One of those was a painful quad injury that occurred during Super Bowl LIII. “I got done with the game, I could barely walk,” Gronkowski said, “I go to the after party, I sit down and I’m just chilling all day, like the rest of the night until 3 a.m. I try to go to bed, I slept for five minutes that night. I couldn’t even think.
“I was in tears, in my bed, after a Super Bowl victory. It didn’t make that much sense to me. And then, for four weeks, I couldn’t even sleep for more than 20 minutes a night after a Super Bowl win. And I was like, ‘Damn, this sucks.’ ”
In an interview with Tom Curran, he revealed a four-week “living hell.” “I had internal bleeding,” Gronkowski said. “I took out 200 milliliters of blood four weeks later, and then another week later … I took out 500 milliliters of blood, and then I took out 300 more milliliters of blood from my quad.
“So, that’s a total of 1,000 milliliters (one liter) I took out of my quad over a four-week period after the Super Bowl. It’s not normal.”
Rob Gronkowski addresses whether or not he is coming back to the NFL: “Football was bringing me down.” pic.twitter.com/SM9P084Rcj
— Patriots on NBCSB (@NBCSPatriots) August 27, 2019
In another interview, Gronkowski revealed how his head had taken such a pounding that fluid began accumulating in his skull. “I felt my head, I used to have liquid. It used to be thick, like, my head used to be thicker, like a centimeter of liquid in some spots, and you feel it. I’d be like, ‘What the heck?’ You could put indents in my head.”
When asked about CTE, Gronkowski said it was among the concerns that prompted his retirement. “I’m aware of that. That’s why I took the action and got away from the game,” he said. “I would not lie, I was walking around, my mood swings were totally up and down. I was aware of what was going with my body and my mind and that’s why I had to walk away.”
In various interviews, Gronkowski related how living with the pain finally stole the joy of playing football from him. His new chapter includes work as a Fox football analyst and CBD entrepreneur. When pressed as to if he’d consider a return to the Patriots this season he said, “I’m enjoying myself right now, I don’t have that itch.” Gronkowski indicated that he’d need to feel the urge to go back to football for a sustained period in order to consider it, and not just a hint of nostalgia, “I see Tom [Brady] throw a nice touchdown pass, I’m like “I wish that was me’. But that’s five seconds [and it’s gone].”
Unlike Kraft, Tom Brady isn’t urging Gronk back to action. “I don’t lobby for those things,” Brady said on WEEI. “Look, I love that guy. I am so happy that he’s enjoying his time. I am happy that he’s enjoying his life. He knows how I feel about him. I want what is best for him. He’s the only person that can make those decisions.” Brady was quick to point out, “He has given actually a hell of a lot to our team already over the course of a long period of time, and I think people should be very appreciative for what he’s brought to the team and what he’s brought to the region. I think he’s a very special guy.”
Unlike many players who also sustain serious injuries, Gronkowski isn’t a fringe player, and unlike those who’ve been drawn to lavish lifestyles, Gronk says that he’s tried to live somewhat conservatively and has lived off his endorsement deals while saving his NFL salary. He indicated that he’s seen other players “spend it all” and wind up in a bad spot and he didn’t want to place himself in that position.
So, to sum it up, for Gronkowski, the pain of the game has removed the enjoyment of it he once had. He’s concerned about the possibility of brain damage and being able to walk and move without pain. He doesn’t need the money. In his own words, the only reason he’d consider returning is if he had the “itch.”
While it’s possible that media is playing up a possible Gronk return, seeking clicks from fans who never think past the scoreboard, if Kraft is in fact, hoping to catch Gronk in a moment of desire and pull him back into action, he needs to do a bit of reflection as to why he feels the need to place a hurting man who’s already given more than his share back in harm’s way.
He needs to admit to himself that it’s not his body and brain on the line and that in trying to entice Gronk to return he’s engaging in self-gratifying but potentially harmful behavior. If he has that internal conversation and still feels that a few extra catches, a few more yards, and whatever else he feels Gronkowski’s return would bring is still worth pursuing, then he needs to explain to Gronk what he can expect in the future, once he has managed to squeeze every ounce of usefulness from his battered body.
He needs to remind Gronk that he’ll only be provided health care for the first 5 of his retirement, so he’d best not spend too much of that salary he managed to save. Kraft should inform Gronkowski that he should expect to pay thousands of dollars per year in health insurance premiums and hundreds of thousands in out of pocket costs. And that’s if he only experiences orthopedic problems.
If he’s experienced organ damage or latent problems due to the use of painkillers he’s had to take then he can add a few hundred thousand on top of that.
Kraft should also warn him that should he experience the latent effects of brain injury the cost will also increase. He might qualify for the NFL’s 88 Plan for severe neurocognitive problems, but “severe” is the operative word and he is unlikely to get any help prior to the time he needs a full-time caregiver.
Speaking of caregivers, perhaps Kraft should let him know that his future wife should be well suited for that role since many care facilities don’t want former NFL players, whose minds are impaired but who still exhibit intimidating body size and strength. They’re used to keeping frail octogenarians in line, not 6’6” 260 lb. former tight ends.
Kraft should be upfront in telling him that should he become disabled it will be years before he’s able to collect disability pay. He should be made aware that the NFL and NFLPA through the Bert Bell Pete Rozelle benefits plan will oppose him at every turn and will never acknowledge that his impairments are a result of his football career.
Maybe Robert Kraft should just take a few lessons from his quarterback, and simply thank Rob Gronkowski and wish him well. It’s safe to assume with all the assaults his body has already endured that he will have lingering problems with his back, and extremities, but he just might get ahead of those problems if he doesn’t continue to layer injury on top of injury until at 40 he’s a hobbled old man.
Let him use the CBD that he’s discovered for pain management and stop trying to force him back to an environment where that’s not allowed but opioids and NSAIDs are plentiful.
In short, Mr. Kraft, if you have any fondness for Gronkowski, any gratitude for the contributions he’s made to your team, and the diamond-studded rings on your fingers, then you need to throw him a Gronk-worthy retirement celebration. Call Jon Bon Jovi, to join him in singing “It’s My Life,” reminding him that he owes “No Apologies” for avoiding “Bad Medicine” and that he’ll be loved and appreciated “Always.”
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Sheilla Dingus founded Advocacy for Fairness in Sports in October 2016, after a stint with Defenders of the Wall, a New England Patriots based blog where she dived deep into the legal aspects of Deflategate. Along the way, she observed many inequities in sports and felt a need to address some of the under-reported stories in sports law. She draws from her background as a former professional dancer, who like many of the athletes she writes about, took an early retirement due to orthopedic injuries. After a return trip to college she worked for a legal software company, with seven years as a Project Manager and Analyst. She brings her analytical skills to the table in breaking down complex lawsuits, and enjoys pursuing her longtime interest in journalism.