TO SEE ROB Gronkowski leap into the air and gently pluck a football out of the sky, his gigantic arms and legs moving in a manner that feels improbably graceful for a man his size, is the closest thing there is in the NFL to spotting a unicorn.
He is, quite possibly, the rarest commodity in football: the balletic big man, sturdy and swift, large yet liquid in his movements. Gronk is unlike any offensive player the league has ever seen. He possesses the arms and torso of a lumberjack and the feet of goal-scoring midfielder. He can catch virtually anything, often by contorting himself into improbable pretzels, and as a blocker he is willing to mix it up with anyone.
But over time, it has become clear that Gronkowski's greatest strength might also be his biggest liability. Like Shaquille O'Neal early in his prime, Gronkowski is such a nimble giant, defenders almost have to grab him, or smack him around, just to slow him down. If you watch tape throughout the course of this season -- and his career -- you'll consistently see examples of players doing everything they can to surreptitiously yank on his jersey, grab an arm, or bump him off his route beyond five yards.
As a result, Gronkowski has built a Hall of Fame resume -- and made the GOAT quarterback Tom Brady look even greater -- while constantly absorbing an unhealthy dose of violent, ligament-bending, bone-crunching collisions.
This is particularly true when it comes to catching the ball up the seam, in the semi-lethal space beyond the linebackers but in front of free safeties. Gronkowski has made a career out of making safeties look silly -- his 76 career touchdowns in eight seasons trails only Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez among tight ends in league history -- but safeties have also spent eight years ramming into him like a truck accelerating downhill with no brakes.
The hit that Jaguars safety Barry Church laid on Gronkowski in the AFC Championship Game -- a blow that knocked him out of the game with a concussion and has left him questionable for Super Bowl LII this Sunday -- is a prime example of the dilemma Gronkowski creates.
Gronkowski left his feet in an attempt to make the catch, his arms fully outstretched in front of him, giving himself a great chance to snag Brady's throw but also leaving himself totally vulnerable to a huge hit. Church knew if he went high to try to dislodge the ball, he'd risk initiating helmet-to-helmet contact. If he went low, he knew he might blow out Gronkowski's knee. The safety says he tried to put a shoulder in Gronkowski's chest, but the two players' helmets still collided with a sickening crunch. Church was flagged for unnecessary roughness, and later fined $24,309.
When Gronkowski got to his feet, some TV viewers thought they could read his lips telling a teammate "I don't know where I am ..." as he was escorted from the field. He didn't return, although his one catch for 21 yards was enough to earn him the distinction of being the NFL's all-time leader in postseason yards for a tight end.
So what are we to make of such nasty collisions? Should we admire Gronkowski's fearless -- or perhaps foolish -- bravado? Or is it fair to wish he would do more to protect himself? How long can one man's body take this kind of beating? Should the league do more to punish players who dole out hits that result in concussions?
When it comes to Gronk, there are plenty of questions and few easy answers.
IT SEEMED, OVER the past few seasons, like we might be witnessing the beginning of Gronkowski's decline as a transcendent player, that a laundry list of broken bones, torn ligaments and herniated disks in his back had to be on the verge of slowing him down. The fact that his 2016 season ended after eight games with a third microdiscectomy surgery on his spine was particularly worrisome. The Patriots didn't seem sold on his long-term future either, signing him to a one-year extension that would, in an unusual move for the team, reward him based on whether or not he hit various individual statistical benchmarks. If he got hurt again, or his production slipped, it was easy to imagine Gronkowski getting shipped out of town by Bill Belichick, a coach known for ruthlessly cutting ties with players a year too early rather than a year too late.
Gronkowski might have sensed this season was critical to his future in New England. And so, according to someone familiar with the conversation, he approached Tom Brady's personal trainer, Alex Guerrero, and said he wanted to give Guerrero's pliability method a try. He wanted to focus more on stretching and better nutrition and less on lifting weights. He wanted, in short, to live a little more like Brady and a little less like the goofy, carefree, chicken wing-eating, beer-drinking cult hero America had grown to love.
Guerrero -- the focus of much controversy and debate this season as the team, on orders from Belichick, reportedly took away his sideline credential and his office at Patriots headquarters -- was skeptical that Gronkowski would be willing to make a real commitment to his program, specifically the diet.
If he was going to work with Gronkowski, he wanted a vow there would be no more late nights on the town, no more trying to be the life of every party. In short, Gronkowski would have to give up some of what made him one of the most lovable, relatable people in sports. The tight end considered it briefly, then let Guerrero know he was all-in. (Guerrero, contacted through a friend, declined to comment for this story.)
When Gronkowski showed up for training camp feeling, in his own words, "leaner and meaner," no one was sure what to think. He caught just two passes in the season opener, and wasn't a factor in a 42-27 loss. He had a stellar game against New Orleans, catching six passes for 116 yards, but then missed the Patriots' Week 5 game against Tampa Bay with a severe thigh bruise. (Guerrero's banishment came about this time, according to someone familiar with the timeline.) Gronkowski, however, seemed to get stronger as the season went on. He shrugged off questions about Guerrero's reported rift with the Patriots, and said he was still working with him, adhering to the diet and stretching routine.
Against Pittsburgh in Week 15, Gronkowski had one of the best performances of his career, catching nine passes for 168 yards in a comeback victory, all the while flexing, preening, laughing and leaping over defenders, looking like his superhero old self in a 27-24 win.
"I never came off a surgery and said, 'Oh, wow. I feel comfortable.'" Gronkowski told a roomful of reporters after he was voted to the Associated Press All-Pro first team this month. "I mean, I can't really give you the timeline like, 'Oh, this many weeks,' or whatever, but throughout them all I would say that you just can't go full speed, even though your mindset is you want to be 100 percent ready to roll. But, just got to keep on sticking to the process, keep on sticking to the rehab, keep on going hard and everything will kick in."
BECAUSE GRONKOWSKI OFTEN comes off as such a lovable goofball -- whether clowning around in Dunkin' Donuts ads, cutting PSAs telling kids not to eat Tide Pods, appearing shirtless in public or popping into the White House press briefing room during the Patriots' visit to meet the president -- it's easy to overlook what a studious player he has become, and how hard he's worked at mastering the subtleties of playing tight end. The improvement he has made since he arrived in New England is almost difficult for Belichick to put into words.
"Oh my god, in everything," Belichick said Monday when asked how Gronkowski had grown as a player. "Look, Gronk is a great athlete. But he barely played as a freshman at Arizona. He had a decent sophomore year, he caught like 30 passes. And then he didn't play his junior year. So as a football player, he was raw. I'm not saying that was his fault, because he's a hardworking guy who will do whatever you ask him to do. But he didn't have much experience. He's improved in all those areas because of his work ethic and his toughness. He's a very sophisticated player. I haven't had a lot of guys who can do what he's able to do. Maybe [Mark] Bavaro. But that's come with a lot of time, a lot of practice and a lot of work. He didn't just walk into the league doing those things."
The public might still think of him as the overgrown frat boy who loves twerking in the Patriots' Super Bowl victory parade, but team veterans also see a guy lingering after practice every day, begging Brady to throw him extra passes.
"He's just committed himself to his craft," Patriots veteran receiver Matthew Slater says. "He's spent a lot of time with Tom. He's worked on his body, physically, to get it right. Obviously, he's had some tough breaks. The kid has been committed to his craft since he got here. I know we think of Rob as Fun-Loving Rob, but he's a professional. He really takes what we do here seriously. He's got a lot of God-given ability, but it's not by accident that he's been able to accomplish what he's accomplished."
The grown-up Gronk narrative has its limits, of course, as evidenced by the one-game suspension he earned for hitting Bills defender Tre'Davious White in the back of the head after White intercepted a pass after tangling with Gronkowski on a sideline route. Gronk apologized for the cheap shot and admitted after the game he was frustrated with the officials for not throwing a flag. But for the most part, Gronk remains a healthy dose of levity in what is arguably the most serious organization in football.
"Sometimes when I look over at Gronk, it reminds me how fortunate we all are to be playing this great game," Patriots backup quarterback Brian Hoyer says. "He really sees it through a kid's eyes. You look over at him and he's laughing as he's catching the ball. It brings you back to that point where you were just playing football because you loved it. It's good to see that in this profession because a lot of it can be serious and doom and gloom, and you look at a guy who is as talented as he is, and he just has fun.
"It's been incredible to be back here and see how his game has progressed from when I was here the last time. He was so young, and now to see him as this eight-year veteran, and how he uses his routes and his technique, it's incredible."
ASSUMING GRONKOWSKI IS medically cleared to play in Sunday's game -- and it seems likely he will be after he rejoined practice last weekend -- the Patriots will once again have the league's most unique offensive weapon for the most important game of the year. That's a luxury they didn't have in the Super Bowl last year, when Gronkowski's career seemed at a crossroads.
And there likely will be a moment against the Eagles when Brady identifies an obvious matchup advantage and lofts a ball in the direction of Gronkowski, toward a spot where only his tight end can snag it. You might hold your breath watching Gronk put his body on the line, straining to make an almost impossible catch, even as a human wrecking ball barrels toward him.
That kind of play can leave you marveling at the absurdity of a man Gronkowski's size possessing that kind of balance and dexterity, but it also can't help but raise an uncomfortable question: How many violent collisions can one man's body handle before his fearlessness robs him of the very thing that makes him special?