12 Jul



With the NFL season approaching there’s so much to ponder and no shortage of story lines.  We love it all,  we love the characters involved, and the unpredictability of their sagas.  But there’s one story, and one character that I’m most concerned with,  New England Patriots tight end, Rob Gronkowski.


When healthy, Gronk has terrorized NFL defenses with his amalgam of size, athleticism, and aggressiveness.  He has dominated opponents to the sweet tune of 42 touchdowns in his first 4 seasons. But the attributes that allow him to abuse defenses are likely the reason he’s oft injured.   The 6’6” 270 pound meat-skull plays the game like Charlie Sheen lives life, with no concept of self preservation.  His physical play has lead to 14 missed games in the last 2 seasons.  He’s been far less than 100% in many others, including postseason contests.  Today, football’s as dangerous as ever even despite the flood of rule changes aimed at making it safer.  The size and speed of the players creates incredibly devastating amounts of force, force that players a generation ago were not exposed to as often.  The accumulation of impacts across a career and the magnitude of the force associate with them  leaves may players with debilitating mental and physical symptoms.  At this rate,  I’m afraid Gronk will be no different.   Could the affable big man one day be reduced to a shell of his current self?

I envision a future Sports Illustrated article, maybe only 20 years from now that reads:

The once formidable Gronkowski, with his mountainous physique and larger then life personality, now spends his days alone in a house somewhere in the Allegheny Mountains.  His mind a scattered mess, he forgets where he puts his shoes most days.  On the worst days he has no idea he played professional football.  The visiting nurse helps him bathe and feed because his spinal stenosis has limited his mobility dramatically.  A host of other football injuries complicate his fragile state…

That’s a narrative that some former players all too commonly face.

For now, Gronk is a 25 year old rock star.  He has money, women and fame.  He’s a hero, an icon, and a role model to thousands.  The man is so popular he has women giving up their first class airplane tickets just to touch his penis!  I cant imagine he has any desire to walk away from the game that has provided him all this.  After all, it is football that defines who Gronk is.  It’s his destiny.

Rob Gronkowski celebrates a TD

A person normally views their destiny as positive.  The thought typically evokes images of  happiness and satisfaction with ones future.  For many players, these shiny optimisms may cloud a more stark and ominous reality.  A reality that  former players face too often and one Gronk may be no exception to.  The cumulative effects of a lifetime of football  can lead to a future wrought with pain, both physical and mental.  A reality that mustn’t be rationalized with the memories of glory days passed because memories can fade  and when they do all that is left is the pain.

Memory loss is common among retired players, a symptom of repeated blows to the head.  A slew of cognitive ailments such as depression, anxiety, agitation and impulsivity often add to the cognitive decline many players face.  Symptoms can start early and it’s not uncommon for them to be seen during their 30’s or 40’s.  In some cases , like with Seau or Duerson, the depression and cognitive torment leads to suicide.

Gronk’s not at that point yet, but that doesn’t matter.  It’s now that counts and it’s now that changes can be made that will prevent an ugly demise.   I’m afraid he’s trudging dangerously closer to that ominous tipping point, his medical history is alarming.  He’s undergone spinal surgery  in college, several wrist surgeries with complications, a reconstructed knee and what I can assure you is an exorbitantly high amount of traumatic blows to the head.  The man is only 25!   Now, he’s returning for his 5th NFL season.  I’m prepared to watch while  darting defensive backs and blood thirsty linebackers  square him up as he streaks down the field like a crazed Norse Berzerker

It’s time for Gronk to leave the game.   He should take his money and his memories and walk away.  He probably has enough of both to live happily for the rest of his life.  Enough to gracefully fade away into old age.  It’d be a momentous move, it could change the culture of the league and the sport.  Maybe other players would follow suit, maybe the NFL would lose a little revenue and maybe that will be what forces them to do everything possible to educate and compensate former, current and future players.  I hope we see that day.  It may just be wishful thinking.   

We know now more than ever, the risks involved in playing football.  Especially the risks to the brain.   However, more protection needs to be provided to the players through education, rule changes and equipment.  More then what’s currently being done.  Unfortunately  the culture resists it.  A player with a heart condition would be advised not to play, perhaps even not medically cleared by team or league doctors.  Is the same done for injuries of the brain?  I’m not certain they are.   If not, why?    And as for Gronk, sometimes a person or a player needs to be protected from themselves, at 25, the foresight really isn’t there.  They still feel invincible.  It’s not easy to convince someone to give up their dreams but then again, nothing worthwhile is ever easy.    

The unfortunate truth is he will get it someday.  I just hope that day comes before it’s too late.  


post script– I’m a football fanatic, don’t get me wrong, I just think  reform is needed.  Players, coaches and parents should be educated about the dangers from an early age and at all levels.

post post script-  If he does come back, which he he almost certainly will, can we please just use him when we’re inside the 35 yard line? Perhaps that way we can limit his reps enough so that he can be healthy for the playoffs!


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