Gronk's last call? Why the Patriots star's decision wasn't easy

Relive the best moments from the Patriots' Super Bowl parade (0:56)

Tom Brady, Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski parade through the city of Boston celebrating the Patriots' sixth Super Bowl title in 18 years. (0:56)

Editor's note: Rob Gronkowski announced his retirement from the NFL on Sunday. This piece was published on Feb. 6, after the Patriots beat the Rams in Super Bowl LIII.

In a Super Bowl week that was largely bereft of juicy narratives, one of the few intriguing stories centered on the question of whether Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots' delightfully gooberish and uniquely gifted tight end, would retire this year. In the days leading up to the game, reporters posited the question to the 29-year-old player (at one point, he joked he had been asked 50 times), his teammates and even his mother, who claimed ignorance on "Today." The day before the Super Bowl, I asked his oldest brother, Gordie, to weigh in. "Every year, he goes through the same thing and weighs out the options and how he feels," Gordie said. "That's his decision."

For the Gronkowski clan and their various hangers-on, some of whom have accrued D-list notoriety among Patriots fans, the week felt like the end of an era -- a sort of senior spring. On Saturday afternoon, Gordie, his brothers and their father were standing in a loose circle at a party in Atlanta, basking in the sun as people passed them drinks and requested pictures, the dueling scents of beer and body spray emanating from the scene. If you've seen Rob, you'd probably recognize the Gronkowski family on sight. All four boys look like duplicates of their famous brother -- permutations on a smiley, muscle-y theme.

As one of the family's close friends, a bearded professional wrestler named Mojo Rawley, held court, Gordie mentioned that "it would be great" if Rob joined the WWE (a couple years ago, the oft-injured tight end made a surprise appearance alongside Mojo at Wrestlemania; one can only imagine the hideous sound that Bill Belichick's teeth made when someone showed him the video). Gordie added that his brother was likely to start some sort of fitness venture, not unlike their father, who has run a workout equipment business in the Buffalo area for decades.

"And he'll probably be in movies," Gordie added, stroking his chin with one hand as he accepted a drink with the other. While Rob has made only a few cameos, he has reportedly worked with an acting coach and has a role as a helicopter gunner in a yet-to-be-released action film starring Mel Gibson.

"He'd be like the Terminator," Gordie said. "Or he'd be like Ivan Drago" -- he beamed at this thought, leaning in closer -- "where you're an absolute beast."

Typically, when a football player approaches the end of his career, the moment marks an opportunity for the people around him to reflect on his growth over the years -- to filter his story through the lens of personal development, grafting an arc onto his career. But none of Gronkowski's family members will indulge in such revisionism. When I asked his younger brother, Goose (real name: Glenn), if Rob had evolved since his first Super Bowl, he looked at me as though I had just asked him if his brother was pursuing a degree in quantum physics.

"I don't think he's changed at all," he said. "He's been the same since he was in fifth grade."

After the game, when the clock wound down and the blue and red confetti rained down over Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Gronkowski, who had caught the 29-yard pass that set up the game-winning touchdown -- arguably the best offensive play of the game -- yanked his enormous Super Bowl T-shirt over his jersey and pads and sought out his family. When they found each other, the Gronkowskis all started hopping up and down and honking something unintelligible in unison, a sort of tribal chant by way of upstate New York. Rob looked ecstatic.

But by the time he sat down for his postgame news conference, his arm wrapped in the massive brace he has worn since 2013, he seemed more subdued. When asked whether he had just played his last game, Gronkowski deferred.

"Tonight's about celebrating with our teammates," he said. "That decision will be made in a week or two."

Someone mentioned a hit he took during the game -- in the second quarter, he collided with a pair of Rams defenders after a short catch -- and he replied quickly, "Yeah, my quad. It hurts a lot. I can barely walk right now." He added, his delivery more deadpan than joyful: "But it's all good, because we're Super Bowl champs."

After the hit, Gronkowski, who played every snap, staggered off the field. Whenever he suffers a blow -- he has endured more than most players, in part because his gigantic frame makes it difficult for defenders to tackle him any other way -- he limps like a cinematic monster hobbled by arrows. The effect is similarly heartbreaking. Gronkowski had surgery on his spine before entering the league (explaining why the Patriots were able to snag him in the second round), and he has experienced a litany of painful injuries and operations over the years. This season, he missed three regular-season games, reportedly because he was suffering from Achilles tendinitis and a bulging disc in his back.

Earlier in the week, he acknowledged how difficult it has been for him to come back at times.

"Try to imagine getting hit all the time, and trying to be where you want every day in life," he said. "It's tough. It's difficult. To take hits to the thigh, to take hits to your head, abusing your body ... isn't what the brain wants."

After his news conference at the Super Bowl, Gronkowski trudged to the locker room, where he started peeling his pads off. As a staffer pulled his nametag off his locker (empty, save for a roll of tube socks and a half-eaten sandwich), Tom Brady's personal trainer, Alex Guerrero, walked over and gently unwrapped the tape on his arm. While his teammates sprayed champagne and danced on one side of the room, Gronkowski was quiet -- solemn, almost. A reporter asked him where he was partying, and he muttered in response: "We'll see, we'll see."

When he had changed into a towel, the large scar on his shoulder shiny with sweat, it was evident that his right thigh was absurdly swollen, to the point where it looked bloated. His movements were halting. I asked him if he was looking forward to the offseason -- potentially, the rest of his life -- and he smiled softly, "I'm super excited to just chill."

Despite being a principal member of a dynastic team that is loathed -- or envied, if you ask New Englanders -- by a sizable portion of the country, Gronkowski is widely beloved. It's not hard to see why. The Patriots tight end is all id and no ego, a court jester whose inhibition-free antics have provided a gleeful respite from the monotony and gloom that have beset the NFL in recent years. And yet: There was nothing escapist about the experience of watching Gronkowski play football. There was joy, to be sure, but there was also pain, a sense of dread that lingered after every bone-crunching hit like a bitter aftertaste. Both sentiments seeped to the surface on Sunday in Atlanta.

So why would he keep playing? For starters: the money. If Gronkowski retires, he'll forfeit about $10 million, assuming New England was intending to pay him (they could cut him at a cost of just $2 million). Even for a frugal superstar who has famously lived off of his endorsement checks for years -- he has made more than $50 million playing football, reportedly stashing it in investments -- that's not nothing, though it's probably not everything. There's also the fear of leaping into the unknown. By all accounts, Gronkowski not only loves the sport, he loves the camaraderie that accompanies the sport, the sort of ritualized bonding that fades away for most of us in adulthood, the absence of which could create a gaping hole in his (probably massive) heart.

If Gronkowski retires now, with just nine seasons under his belt, his volume statistics won't impress. But he should still be a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame. At his peak -- and his peak lasted for several years, which is why he's a four-time All-Pro -- it felt like the tight end position was invented in response to his rare gifts, the singular marriage of power and grace he brought to the game. The same man who plowed through linebackers as a blocker reeled in passes with a feather-soft touch, like a boy catching snowflakes with his tongue. No Patriots receiver has compiled more yards with Brady.

And that, I believe, is why Gronkowski is so widely adored. Not because of "Yo Soy Fiesta" or his love of the number 69 or the Gronk Cruise or the Gronk Bus or the Gronk Space Shuttle (that last one is made up, but imagine the Uranus jokes!), but because he excelled at his craft without giving up any part of himself -- except, of course, his body. For those of us who sit in offices all week and lounge on our sofas on Sundays, Brady, with his abstemious lifestyle, is an icon, but probably not someone we aspire to be. We dream of being Gronk.

Goose was right when he said his brother hasn't changed, mentally, since entering the league. On Thursday, when I posed the same question to a few of his teammates, they all scoffed. "He's the exact same person," said longtime New England safety Patrick Chung, who also added, unprompted, "he's also very intelligent -- just so you guys know that."

Matthew Slater, the Patriots special teamer who has played alongside Gronkowski for all of his eight seasons, agreed.

"With everything he's accomplished as a player, he's kept that childlike joy," he said. "I think there's something to learn from that, for all of the serious adults in the room. Like myself."

While they were talking, Gronkowski loped into the hotel ballroom, waving at all of his teammates. When he sat at his podium, he was immediately asked about his pending retirement decision -- "today's a maybe," he cracked -- and how he felt after such a demanding season.

"It's a grind, mentally and physically, but I've been doing it my whole life," he said. "I've been doing it now, playing football, every year since seventh grade. I don't know anything different."

A reporter pointed out that Chung was wearing a hat that said "DILF" earlier, and Gronkowski lit up, grinning for the first time. He responded to a question about whether he ever ran into trouble because of his free-wheeling personality by shaking his head.

"I was pretty outrageous at some points ... but I always showed up and got it done," he said.

In other words: He wasn't a New England player in the traditional sense, but he still followed the Patriot Way.

Someone asked Gronkowski if he ever looked back at his past shenanigans and wondered why he acted the way he did.

"Nah," he said. "It's pretty sweet."

And then he giggled, emitting one of his signature "huh huh huh" laughs, his voice rising at least an octave.

"Maybe more to come soon," he said.