The best moment of Sunday night’s NFL game had nothing to do with Tom Brady’s revival or the Patriots’ redemption or any of the other moments of vindication en route to a 43-17 over the Bengals.
The best moment was when the NBC cameras revealed that the Patriots cheerleaders were wearing the jersey of Bengals defensive lineman Devon Still, whose daughter Leah was diagnosed with pediatric cancer in June.
Leah, who is 4 years old, recently underwent surgery to have multiple tumors removed. Her particular fight has become familiar to football fans. Proceeds from the sale of her dad’s jersey go to cancer research. Over $1 million has been raised so far.
The Patriots’ gesture, which included a $25,000 donation to cancer research and a video board tribute, led to a poignant image in the third quarter: Still, standing on the sideline, a tear rolling over his LEAH STRONG eye black and down his left cheek.
It was a reminder, as if one was even required in Still’s case, that beneath all the armor and comic-book-hero muscles beats the tender heart of a frightened, loving dad. It too was reminder that authentic compassion can still be found in the NFL.
In a much smaller and less significant way, there was another sign of compassion last night, one shaded with genuine respect and a little bit of anger too, and it was found in a most improbable spot: the Patriots locker room.
Now, maybe Rob Gronkowski has had a reason to cry sometime in the last few years. Maybe he shed a tear or two in the aftermath of having his knee shredded by the Browns’ T.J. Ward last December.
But generally he seems to blast his way through life with a happy-go-lucky, roll-with-it-bro attitude — he’s the kind of guy, you’ll recall, who can find time to dance after a Super Bowl loss.
I suspect the last time he cried — really cried — might have been when Ric Flair lost to Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania XXIV. Or perhaps it was even further back, when he was 12 and one of his brothers “accidentally” dropped a 75-pound barbell on his skull. (I’m just assuming that happened. Multiple times.)
Gronk didn’t cry last night, at least that we know of. But it sure sounded like he was coming close in the immediate aftermath of the Patriots’ cathartic bleep-the-skeptics victory, when his voice cracked during an impassioned salute to Brady.
“Before we came to the game, I go, ‘I’m gonna make 12 look like Tom Brady again, baby,'” said Gronk, punctuating his words with quick claps. “And I went out there, with my teammates, and we made Tom Brady look like Tom Brady after you guys were criticizing him all week. And the fans. And it feels so good and he’s such a leader and he went over 50,000 yards today. He’s an unbelievable player and I’m so glad to play with him.”
Maybe it wasn’t the equivalent of Terrell Owens’s tearful, infamous “that’s-my-quarterback” defense of Tony Romo a few years ago …
… but then, Gronk strikes you as considerably more emotionally stable than T.O. It would have surprised me or anyone else if 10 minutes after his Romo defense, he tried to shove him in front of Jerry Jones’s moving party bus. “That my quarterback… flat. Should have thrown me the ball more.”
Gronk’s response was a window into the mindset of the Patriots this week. It has become very clear that some of the nonsense surrounding Brady’s status, the pathetic race to be the first to declare the end near for the greatest and most dedicated quarterback ever to play here, was highlighted by Belichick and used as a tool to get the team to rally around each other.
That they did so, that they galvanized at a moment when the season felt like it was about to tip in a direction unfamiliar around here since 2009, was extraordinarily encouraging in regard to who they are and who they will be. Responding with a big win way the week after a difficult loss has been standard procedure during the Belichick/Brady Era. To see them do it again last night, in a short week against the unbeaten Bengals, was as reassuring as a Week 5 win gets.
Football-wise, Gronk’s performance could be classified as reassuring, too. Dominating and vintage also work. He had six catches for 100 yards — his first 100-yard game since his six-catch, 127-yard performance last December 1 against the Texans, the week before his knee was blown to smithereens.
“He’s been through a lot,” Brady said after the game. “Talk about mental toughness.”
His 16-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter gave the Patriots a 27-10 lead. But it did more — it meant more — than just that. We hold our collective breath every time Gronk takes a hit these days. En route to the end zone, he dodged a Bengals defender who was making a beeline for his knee.
He deftly avoided the contact there, and yet more so than at any other point this season, he initiated contact when necessary. He was so fun to watch. He was his old, physical self. He shook off the rust. It was Gronk, full-force and all-out.
He did it to help make Tom Brady look like Tom Brady again, baby.
Of all the positive developments last night — Brady playing with emotion and tempo, and Tim Wright arriving in the passing game, and Stevan Ridley actually getting the damn ball more than five times — the Gronk revival was arguably the most important. He makes things easier for everyone.
His scoring catch last night tied him and Brady for second all-time in touchdowns among a QB/TE tandem, tying Drew Bledsoe and Ben Coates. He’s only 25, believe it or not, and yet he’s already an all-timer at his position.
Yet the injuries have added an element of suspense and concern to his career. We worry that his greatness could be abbreviated, which would be an epic bummer. There are few players we have enjoyed watching more.
Twice, Super Bowl hopes have been affected by his late-season injuries. It’s so heartening to see him back in form now. Now here’s hoping he’s in good health at the end of the season.
Gronk is back. Not coincidentally, so are the Patriots. It cannot be exaggerated how much he means to this team. I’d suggest no one needs a reminder of that, except that this week, Patriots fans and media have needed a reminder of a lot of things they should not.