FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It is the type of moment where time seems to stop, an eerie quiet taking over a stadium with 60,000-plus in attendance as the cart comes out for an injured player. Emotions of teammates swirl.
“It’s like you’re in a bad dream,” Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater said, “and you’re hoping you wake up and it wasn’t really happening.”
The potential season-changing moment occurred with 8:36 remaining in the third quarter of the Patriots’ 27-26 comeback victory, Gronkowski’s right knee taking a direct but legal hit from Cleveland Browns safety T.J. Ward.
As Gronkowski lay on the ground, medical staff surrounding him and calling for the cart, several of his teammates were devastated. Some, like Slater, began to pray.
“My heart is broken for Rob and having to see him go through that, seeing him in pain, and realizing what he has been through in his young career, it’s heartbreaking, it really is,” Slater said.
“You can’t help but think about that. They always say ‘injuries are a part of the game, injuries are a part of the game,’ but that doesn’t mean you get used to it. Guys are out here putting their bodies on the line week in and week out. ... That kid has been through so much, and he’s worked his butt off to overcome a lot of different things at a young age.
“He means so much to this football team, not only what he does on the field, but in the locker room -- his presence. He brings a childlike joy to the locker room.”
Slater’s emotions captured a unique mood in the Patriots’ locker room after their remarkable comeback win.
There was elation at accomplishing what looked like the impossible after trailing 26-14 with 2:39 remaining in the fourth quarter. But there also was the realization that they would now be chasing their Super Bowl hopes without a key member of the team, which has season-altering possibilities, as the Patriots fear Gronkowski tore his ACL, with an MRI scheduled for Monday to confirm the injury, a source told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.
Gronkowski’s season got off to a delayed start, as he missed the first six games while recovering from offseason back and forearm surgeries. He seemed to be hitting his stride the past few weeks and had been a huge addition to the Patriots' offense.
Players from both teams came over to Gronkowski on the cart to offer encouragement before he waved to the crowd. Teammate Matthew Mulligan had helped Gronkowski onto the cart.
“Obviously, there is a lot of emotion there, from him and from me; I just wanted to be there in any way I possibly could,” Mulligan said of the moment. “When you have a good player like him, and you know all the struggles that he’s gone through already, I think it’s catastrophic and everybody feels it.
“You spend so much time with these men on this team, a lot of times more than your family. When something happens that’s out of the ordinary, and it’s a difficult situation, you feel for him. It’s just like your brother. It was very difficult to watch. That’s why you go over and try to pick him up any way you possibly can -- whether it’s physically [or something else]. He would do the same for me.”
Transitioning from the injury back to the game naturally was a challenge for Patriots players.
“We’re all human, so we have different emotions that come out,” said Mulligan, the No. 2 tight end who elevated into Gronkowski’s role after the injury.
“The first thing I thought was everything he went through to get back out here, and how hard he’s worked,” said safety Devin McCourty, another of the team’s captains.
“To see him take a shot and go down, it kind of kills us a little bit,” running back Shane Vereen added. “But we know he’ll be back; he’s a fighter.”
It’s unlikely Gronkowski will be back in 2013, which was a reality many players were wrapping their heads around at the same time they were dissecting an improbable victory.
“When it first happens, you’re like, ‘It’s not real. It’s not really happening,’” Slater said of Gronkowski being carted off. “But as you see him out on the field, in pain, and it was a tough pill to swallow.”