This is a version of Rob Gronkowski that even the most loyal Gronk-a-maniac couldn’t have expected. He’s 32 now — old for any athlete, ancient for a bullish tight end. He’s not built for extreme longevity, unless that’s a nickname for something you can pour into a shot glass.

Gronkowski already retired once, and when he did so in 2019, it felt like the right time for his battered body. Yet here he is, in the second season of his comeback, providing more than just familiarity for Tom Brady. He looks like a superstar again — an evolved one. He lives in the end zone again, having scored four touchdowns in the first two games. He has 12 receptions, flashing a level of productivity he hasn’t shown since his mid-20s. And he’s thriving while lining up more as a classic tight end for Tampa Bay, no longer positioned on the outside as much he was in New England.

The Patriots unlocked Gronk’s Hall of Fame talent by allowing him to be a freakish, 6-foot-6, 265-pound anomaly who punished opponents with his physical gifts. In a Buccaneers offense blessed with impressive wide receiver talent, his role has been streamlined. It doesn’t diminish his importance, though. As great as Brady is, he always plays at a higher level when Gronkowski is healthy and available. The tight end is back in peak physical condition this season, and the Bucs appear to be a defending champion with another gear.

A year ago, Gronkowski was solid. He caught 45 passes for 623 yards and scored seven touchdowns. Just as important, he played every regular season game for the first time since 2011. After sitting out the 2019 season, he wasn’t dominant in 2020. He knew it, and in typical Gronk fashion, he coped by making fun of himself.

“I’m a blocking tight end,” he said last October. “I came here to block, baby.”

Actually, he is one of the most complete tight ends in NFL history. He is a receiving threat who also mauls defenders when asked to block. Gronkowski is a full-bore human being, football’s preeminent work-hard, play-harder character.

He didn’t just come to Tampa to block. He came to do it all, baby. He’s extra like that. In a golden era for NFL tight ends that he helped foster, you know he wanted to return to elite status. The only question was whether his body would allow that endless party to continue.

It’s striking to see his zeal again. When Gronkowski left football at 29, the moment was sobering. He retired five months before Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck quit. It was a period that forced another round of solemn reflection about what a vicious game football can be. A few days after Luck’s farewell announcement, Gronkowski fought back tears during a news conference to promote a CBD product.

He had suffered more than 10 significant injuries during his playing career. He has had multiple back surgeries, knee surgery, forearm surgery. His road to making the NFL’s 100th anniversary all-time team was full of pain.

Football was bringing me down,” Gronkowski said during that emotional interview. “And I didn’t like it. And I was losing that joy in life. Like, the joy. I’m sorry right now, but, aw, dang, let me …”

He paused and kept going, but on that day, he seemed a long way from making a comeback. And it seemed like a good thing he felt that way.

Now that he’s all the way back — another stellar performance last season in another Super Bowl triumph, a renewed commitment this season — let’s not celebrate him breathlessly as some paragon of toughness and football resilience. His return shouldn’t be used to force a warrior narrative and mask that football is a dangerous, cruel game. Gronkowski didn’t prove anything new by deciding to play again. The game is fortunate that he still has so much love for it.

It is possible, maybe even likely, that he won’t be able to sustain this electric start. The way he plays, an injury always looms. He has played 16 games in back-to-back seasons just once, and those were his first two years in the NFL. A four-time champion, Gronkowski is one of the greatest postseason players ever. It’s fascinating that a player who competes like there’s no tomorrow somehow still keeps arriving at tomorrow.

He would prefer for us to ignore the substance and remain intrigued by his shtick. Sorry, dude, there’s more to you. It’s so very Gronk that, with the sport buzzing about his season-opening brilliance, he would spend the week building up a fake controversy surrounding his comments that he “doesn’t watch film” during a visit with Peyton and Eli Manning on Monday night on ESPN.

“Trust me, I watch so much film that my girlfriend gets mad at me,” Gronkowski said, playfully amending his comments to the Manning brothers. “She friggin’ throws [expletive] at me sometimes, I’m watching so much film. Sometimes I go home and she’s like, ‘You’ve been gone all day and now you’re studying, you’ve got your iPad out,’ and I’m like: ‘Yeah, I’ve got to get into it. I got to learn.’ ”

No question, he has found that missing joy. He is feeling good. Let’s hope it stays that way because the sport is more enjoyable when its biggest goof is showing out on the field and downplaying his greatness.

His teammates notice the dedicated player behind the persona, though. During the preseason, Bucs tight end O.J. Howard — a 26-year-old who was a first-round pick in 2017 — spoke admiringly of Gronkowski.

“Rob is the man because every day you get the same character with him being the loving, funny personality,” he told reporters. “But he’s going to come out and work hard and a lot of people kind of get that misconception of him, but he works hard every day. When you see a guy who already has so much notoriety and so many accolades and still comes out here every day to do it, it shows you how to be a pro. That’s something I take from him.”

There’s another Gronk dimension: veteran leader by example. You can follow him for more than a chance to cut the line at the club.

The big kid is sticking around long enough to be seen as an adult. It’s not just his performance that stands out early this season. He astonishes with his growth, too.