Rob Gronkowski was in full Gronk mode Sunday night — beaming from his postgame podium, joking with teammates, laughing and patiently answering reporters’ questions.
Fresh off a six-catch, 67-yard, two-touchdown night in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 31-9 thrashing of the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl 55, his performance had just earned him a fourth championship ring.
Yet a year earlier, he’d been on the field in Miami sporting a blazer and bow tie prior to Super Bowl 54, a retired legend being celebrated as part of the NFL’s 100th anniversary all-time team.
A year prior to that, he’d played what turned out to be his final game for the Patriots, making a key 29-yard reception to set up the game’s only touchdown in New England’s 13-3 Super Bowl 53 defeat of the Rams.
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But as I asked Gronkowski a few questions that night in Atlanta, it was clear he was in pain while scuffling through the bowels of Mercedes-Benz Stadium after suffering a deep thigh bruise following a physical battle against Los Angeles’ defense. The legendary party boy seemed more interested in hitting the hay. Just a few weeks later, he called it quits at age 29.
Gronkowski would later reveal that, after beating the Rams, he actually didn’t sleep that night, the pain so intense it would bring him to tears — and it lingered for the next month.
“I remember after that win, I was so done,” he told USA TODAY Sports after being asked to reflect on his two-year journey Sunday. “Coming off the field, I was like, ‘I’m just glad it’s over.’ Just the pain I was in, too — it was great to be champ, but it just felt great to be done.”
But, after a year off, he simply felt great. Gronkowski was ready to return and ready to reunite with Tom Brady in Tampa Bay, and the Patriots accommodated him with a trade to the Bucs last April.
“Take the year off, go through that journey, heal up, get my mind right — just see the options out there, see everything play out,” Gronkowski said of his football interlude. “And just come down here then to Tampa Bay, come out of retirement — I retired from being retired, that was just pretty cool.
“I saw the opportunity. … I love Florida, opportunity to be in great weather, T-shirts and shorts and sandals basically every day going to work — that’s my style. And just unbelievable, what a journey it’s been, what a story it’s been.”
The move enabled Gronkowski to be near his mother, Diane, who lives about two hours down the Gulf Coast in Fort Myers.
And, of course, he was able to reconnect with Brady, his close friend, while jelling with a whole new locker room. Gronkowski praised the entire Bucs organization for its unselfishness and professionalism.
“It feels amazing. It feels tremendous. It’s just an unbelievable story,” he said.
“What a year it was playing with these guys. What. A. Year. I just can’t say that enough. What a year it was. It was a pleasure, and now it’s time to celebrate with these guys because we deserve it.”
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After a slow start to 2020, Gronk finished with modest regular-season numbers (45 catches for 623 yards and seven touchdowns) — not figures from his All-Pro peak, but numbers mirroring his final season with the Patriots in 2018.
However, he was the best tight end in Super Bowl 55, even though he was sharing the field with record-setting Chiefs All-Pro Travis Kelce. Over the course of about 10 minutes spanning the first and second quarters, Gronkowski hooked up with Brady for the Buccaneers’ first two touchdowns, staking them to a 14-3 lead that would ultimately prove decisive.
“It just happened to be me this time making the plays, to have the touchdown passes thrown to me,” he said after catching just two balls in Tampa Bay’s first three playoff wins.
And adjusted his Super Bowl legacy in the process. The most productive tight end in the history of Super Sunday now has 14 playoff TD passes from Brady, allowing them to eclipse Joe Montana and Jerry Rice as the most prolific postseason tandem in league history. Gronkowski also joined Rice as the only players in Super Bowl history to have multiple games with multiple touchdown receptions, his career total now at five.
“That was huge, especially that second one,” said coach Bucs coach Bruce Arians. “Gronk made a great adjustment.”
Yet moving forward, it doesn’t sound like he’s ready for another major life adjustment. Admitting he’d take ample time to celebrate his newest title, Gronkowski said he’d mull his first opportunity to be an NFL free agent in a few weeks, the extension he signed with New England nearly nine years ago finally set to expire.
But a man who’s never played professionally without Brady doesn’t seem keen for a change of scenery.
“I’ll remain unretired,” quipped Gronkowski.
“But I definitely see myself coming back.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.
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