But in truth, life after the NFL has been on his mind for more than a year. His body has, for at least the past two seasons, begun to break down as his confrontational playing style takes its toll. To further complicate matters, “Gronk” will turn 30 in May, and defenders seem to zero in on his vulnerabilities — lingering back, ankle and arm injuries among them. Gronkowski hasn’t appeared in a full 16 games in a regular season since 2011, and this season he missed three games and was a mainstay on New England’s injury report.
The Gronkowski story before Super Bowls used to be how the Patriots would deploy one of the most physically dominant players in football history. Now it’s how much longer the NFL will have him — and his unpredictable behavior — to enjoy.
“This is the beginning of the end,” said Nate Burleson, an NFL analyst for CBS. “Just being realistic: How many more pieces of equipment can you put on your body before it literally stops you from being who you are?”
Which is why, in part, this week seems like something of a last ride. Gronkowski didn’t just dance before Super Bowl week’s “Opening Night,” a spectacle that seems to annoy and confuse most of New England’s players and coaches. He lamented that he would be unable to attend a “snow day party” if winter weather befell Atlanta, enthusiastically sported a sombrero and reached to sample from a platter of edible insects before security intervened, and amused himself again and again by referencing his favorite number.
“What’s 6 times 9 plus 6 plus 9?” he said in response to one question. “Figure it out. It’s a good answer!”
This was Gronkowski — the NFL’s clown prince since 2010 — playing the hits, and even if this week isn’t officially a farewell tour, it feels like one. Between his more traditional antics, he reflected on the passage of time and the way his rookie season feels so recent. He noted the changes to “Opening Night” and Super Bowl week itself. Occasionally he looked back on what is almost certainly a Hall of Fame career: five Pro Bowls, five Super Bowl appearances and at least two Super Bowl wins.
“When I started,” Gronkowski said during a moment of introspection, “I never would’ve thought I’d be where I’m at. And I appreciate every moment of it.”
Then, flicking back into character, he returned to being goofy or random or nonsensical. It is part of the Gronkowski charm, maybe the purest reminder that the NFL — a corporate giant that takes over major U.S. cities, fights off one public-relations crisis after another and nevertheless hauls in $15 billion per year — is in the entertainment business.
And Gronk is nothing if not entertaining. Asked this week about his favorite music, Gronkowski said he prefers tunes with a good beat, appearing to suggest — it’s hard to know when to take him literally — he will be making his own music soon enough.
“I’ve been practicing a lot lately, listening to more songs,” he said, one of several statements that never quite arrived at its point. “But I like to dance.”
Years earlier, Gronkowski had become a superstar after videos landed on social media with him furiously dancing without a shirt; if his 6-foot-6 and 268-pound frame made him seem superhuman, his preference for lowbrow humor and a proudly simple way of explaining things made him relatable. Gronkowski’s personality was the perfect counterweight to Patriots Coach Bill Belichick’s dryness. Gronk drank with both fans and A-list celebrities, hosted his own party cruise to the Bahamas and said things so outrageous that sometimes they even made Belichick laugh. His “Gronk Spike” touchdown celebration was simultaneously primitive and beautiful.
But a little more than a year ago, it almost seemed as if the No Fun League — a nickname the NFL earned after continually tightening rules and banning many touchdown celebrations — actually had broken the most fun player in football.
During the 2017 season, reports emerged of discord in the New England machine: Coaches and players were drifting apart after a 16-year dynasty. Gronkowski, for his part, wanted to train a certain way; the Patriots preferred a different method. In December 2017, Gronkowski was suspended for a late hit that caused a concussion to a defender, and he apologized for letting his frustration boil over.
By last year’s Super Bowl, it seemed believable that, in what many would have expected to be the prime of his career, he could walk away.
“I don’t know how you heard that,” he said shortly after New England lost to Philadelphia, “but, I mean, I’m definitely going to look at my future.”
He wouldn’t commit to playing in 2018 until last April, and as the Patriots entertained trade offers for him in the lead-up to the draft, Gronkowski threatened to retire. Somehow Gronk, once the very embodiment of joy, seemed to have lost his smile.
At the Belmont Stakes in June, Gronkowski arrived in a black van to watch “Gronkowski,” a 3-year-old thoroughbred he had invested in. He moved quickly and deliberately inside a pack of about 30 people, pulling his hat low and wearing sunglasses indoors, appearing to avoid attention. Even the horse’s 69-to-1 odds to win seemed incapable of amusing Gronkowski (the human), though he did bet $69 on Gronkowski (the horse) to place, which he did — finishing second to Justify, who captured the Triple Crown.
The summer passed, and the Patriots eventually reworked Gronkowski’s contract. Gronk was smiling again, and the Patriots were winning again, but the tight end missed three games and seemed unable to fully recover from back and ankle injuries. He seemed to limp off the field more frequently, appeared physically and mentally beaten down more regularly. He indicated in November that 2018 was more challenging than seasons past, and his three touchdowns during the regular season tied for the fewest of his career.
“He doesn’t look like young Gronk,” Burleson said this week, and if 41-year-old Patriots quarterback Tom Brady seems ageless, the same cannot be said about the tight end.
On Monday, someone asked Gronkowski how many more seasons — how much more punishment — his body could take.
“That’s a good question,” he said. “That’s a good question.”
He paused for a long time.
“Many,” he finally said. “Many years. As many years as I want to go.”
Maybe that’s true, though again it’s hard to know whether that should be taken literally. And maybe Gronkowski is truly not thinking about his retirement, but most everyone else here is, and wherever he goes, there’s a feeling that something fun — crude and often immature fun, to be clear — is being lost.
After nearly an hour of answering questions and gleefully participating in high jinks, Gronkowski’s media session concluded, and a Patriots official motioned toward the exit.
“Thank you guys. I appreciate it all,” Gronk said in the most earnest way, and a moment later he stood and waved goodbye.