There was a torrent of words after Super Bowl LII on Sunday night. There was the entirely justified praise for everyone associated with the Philadelphia Eagles. There was the tsunami of insulting flummery from the New England Patriots brain trust, which wasn’t even seriously trying to defend the absurd benching of Malcolm Butler. (And, while we’re at it, what was that idiotic reverse you tried on the kickoff late in the game?) There was the usual thumping of various corporate tubs and the inevitable cascade of clichés. But, lost in all the words, the most interesting thing anybody said came from Rob Gronkowski, who was well-nigh unstoppable throughout the second half and who came inches away from being immortal on the last play of the game.
Before the game, football writer Mike Florio reported that he would not be shocked if Gronkowski retired after the game. Asked about it after the game, Gronkowski said, “I don’t know how you heard that but I’m definitely going to look at my future for sure. I’m going to sit down the next couple weeks and see where I’m at.” Given what’s happened to Gronkowski ever since he went down to Arizona for college, there’s nothing surprising about this at all. He lost his entire junior season there to back surgery. Since joining the Patriots, he hasn’t played a full season since 2011. He’s hurt his arm – which led to a gruesome post-operative infection – and his knee. His back never has been right and, in the AFC Championship, he suffered what is alleged to be his first NFL concussion when he got freight-trained by Jacksonville safety Barry Church. Gronkowski is 28 years old and this is the way he thinks because this is the way all sensible football players think these days.
There is some horrible medical symmetry in the fact that, after his season-ending knee surgery in 2008, Tom Brady contracted the same kind of virulent post-operative infection that bedeviled Gronkowski. That was almost 10 years ago and Tom Brady is 40. It is time for Brady to start thinking the way all sensible football players should think these days.
Over the course of writing a book about him 12 years ago, I got to know the entire extended Brady clan, and I came to like all of them very much. This was the season that ended when Champ Bailey jumped a route in a playoff game and nearly took the ball from one end of the field to the other, except that Ben Watson ran him down in one of the greatest plays I’ve ever seen. For most of the second half of that year, Brady had a leg injury severe enough that he had to wear a walking boot at home. I didn’t find out about this until I was doing interviews after the season. Because I came to like him and his family, I feel somewhat free to tell Brady that it’s time to hang it up.
Forget this fantasy about playing until you’re 50. On Sunday, you threw the ball for 505 yards and three touchdowns. You did not throw an interception. Sure, there was that fumble which, alas, is going to live forever, too, but it’s a footnote on your career. It’s interesting to note that, in all three of the Super Bowls your team lost, you got them into a lead late in the game, which is all a quarterback is supposed to do, only to have the defense give it all back. First, David Tyree had his moment. (I still don’t know how Eli Manning, who never has been confused with Russell Wilson, got away from Ty Warren.) A few years later, it was Mario Manningham. And on Sunday, it was the entire defensive side of the ball, minus Butler, of course, who did not play because shut up, as Bill Belichick explained after the game. There is nothing missing from your resume. Your legacy is as vast and solid as that of any other professional athlete who ever lived. You have young children and absolutely nothing to prove.
Over the last two seasons, playing behind a patchwork offensive line, you’ve taken a fearful beating. You got popped hard a few times on Sunday, albeit while only actually being sacked once, on that play where the ball came loose. Even on that play, you were capsized in one of those broken-pocket scrums where almost anything can happen while very large and angry men are trying to find a loose football. This is the kind of casual, random violence that happens every week in the NFL. And there’s no magic formula to avoid it. You’ve stood up to it for almost 20 years and the price you’ve paid was obvious when they ran that play where you went out for a pass. You looked like your legs might break off at mid-thigh. Nobody ever will doubt your durability or your toughness.
Which brings me to the most distressing aspect of this whole business. I hope with all my heart that you are not staying with this hyper-destructive occupation in order to sell whatever it is that you’re cooking up with Alex Guerrero – who, I believe, would have been selling nerve tonic and rheumatiz’ medicine out of the back of a covered wagon 150 years ago. I hope you’re not continuing to play to demonstrate the efficacy of super-duper brainwater and electrolytes. I hope you’re not sacrificing your health for the sake of marketing some male Goop concoction-based lifestyle. This would be a ghastly, terrible waste.
It is true that I no longer recognize you as a public person. I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re about these days, especially with this whole TB12 business. For years, and when I was working on the book, you were very careful about your endorsements. You smartly stayed only with a few high-end, if conventional, products. I never anticipated that you’d go all-in on something like franchising Alex Guerrero’s House Of Nostrums and Potions. However, as my grandmother used to say, we’re all entitled to go to hell by our own road. It’s your choice, as it always has been. But you have young children, and nothing at all to prove.