It was a few days before what would be Rob Gronkowski's last game before his retirement when he revealed the toll the game had taken on him. He spoke unsmilingly of the hits and the pain they inflicted on every part of his body, including his mind. It was a sobering look behind the curtain at a player who once exclaimed "Yo Soy Fiesta!"
A year later, on Tuesday, with his body healed and his mind cleared, Gronkowski gave us a little more clarity on what more was going on in his head all along. It wasn't just that football had worn him down. Football in New England wore him down.
That, of course, is also the Tom Brady story. And after Gronkowski came out of retirement Tuesday and told the Patriots he wanted to be traded so he could play again with Brady, the erstwhile pair of former Patriots will be reunited and refreshed in Tampa for a late-stage run at post-Bill Belichick championships. With one stroke, Gronk got his quarterback and Brady got his guy. The trade immediately provided Brady with a security blanket as he adjusts -- perhaps without the benefit of offseason work -- to a new team and a new offense. The Bucs got a big dose of toughness and the culture that, before Tuesday, Brady was going to have to import by himself. And fans got back one of the most joyful players in NFL history.
The offense in Tampa is likely to look much more familiar now, if turned up several notches, with a level of talent among his weapons that Brady did not enjoy last season. Gronkowski's body had broken down in New England, and the offense often ceased to function properly without him, although he put on a blocking and receiving tour de force performance in the playoffs that led up to the Patriots' final Super Bowl victory with Brady. Gronkowski clearly loved retirement. He popped up at parties and television sets and wrestling rings, a slimmed down advertisement for not getting hit.
Gronkowski has not played 16 games since 2011, and at the end in New England, it was painful to watch him, diminished, try to play. But a year off, with the attendant weight loss and dabbling in pro wrestling, should be the balm Gronkowski's aching back and other assorted bruises needed. Gronkowski will have to put back a lot of weight to be able to resume his play-with-abandon style. But he will be just 31 years old whenever the NFL season begins, and if he can keep his body intact, especially with a reduced workload that Tampa can provide, he should certainly be able to play at least the two years that Brady will be in Tampa.
Gronkowski will surely be Brady's preferred target, that steamroller bounding down the seam like a Golden Retriever chasing a Frisbee, a matchup nightmare for defenses. Gronkowski is arguably the best tight end to have ever played the game. He comes with the added bonus of being able to help Brady explain what he wants from the other players on the offense, and to deliver the message that Brady demands full buy-in and will ignore anybody who is not on the same page. Those other players are already of a better caliber, in totality, than Brady has had in New England. Mike Evans and Chris Godwin are premier receivers. Bruce Arians is a mad scientist on offense. It is clear, in adding Gronkowski, that the Bucs did not sign Brady merely to boost ticket sales and maybe win a few more games. They are trying to win a Super Bowl.
With the Saints and Falcons also in the division, the NFC South is one of the most difficult divisions in the NFL. But the presumed ascension of the Bucs is not far-fetched. They went 7-9 last season, in Arians' first in charge, after losing two games in overtime and with a quarterback who threw 30 interceptions. They led the league in passing yards and were third in points scored. Now they add the tight end who, when he played between 2010 and 2018, led the league in receiving touchdowns with 79.
What this says about New England is something else, and probably a topic more fully explored another day. In walking away in a quest for refreshment, Brady and Gronkowski may have most wanted to get away from Belichick. That's fine for all parties. But in acquiring both players, the Bucs hope they are also acquiring the championship culture that Belichick built and Brady and Gronkowski executed. Belichick will figure something out for next season. The Bucs already have. Gronkowki said he was a party. Now, the celebration is most certainly headed to Tampa.