Gronkowski Retirement Provides Another Injury Lesson
Recent news that 4–time All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski is retiring, at the age of 29, rocked the football world, causing shock and misery throughout New England. Given that this huge hunk of a man played with wild abandon, this announcement shouldn’t come as a huge surprise.
Gronk is 6’6” and weighs about 270 pounds. I’ve seldom seen any other receiver expose his body to injury the way Gronk did. First off, he relied greatly on leaping high to snatch Tom Brady’s passes above the defenders. Since the shorter guys couldn’t knock away these passes, they tried to jar the ball loose with vicious hits when he came back down to earth.
Gronk also was a reckless runner after he made his catches. He was known for a mean stiff arm, and for trying to hurdle defensive backs.. His playing style took a great toll on his body, which is the apparent reason for his retirement decision.
Just in his last two years, Gronk missed games due to a back strain, ankle sprain, and thigh contusion. In 2018 alone, he was listed as questionable for eight straight weeks in the middle of the season. In 2016, he was only healthy for three games all season, and he spent the final eight weeks on IR due to a bad back.
For the first third of the 2014 season, he played despite a bad knee. He was listed on the injury report for every week of 2013; he finally went down with an ACL/MCL tear in December. In 2012, he was on the injury report list for all but three weeks. He missed most of the last seven weeks with a forearm injury.
Rob’s second season, 2011, was the only time his health held up all year. And what a year it was: 90 catches, 1,327 yards, 17 touchdowns. Had he not suffered so many injuries, think of the career numbers he would have run up.
I remember way back when a reporter interviewed Ray Nitschke, the hard-hitting Packers’ linebacker from 1958 to 1972. The reporter asked if he avoided injury be being the aggressor. He cleared up that misconception by saying that the harder he hit someone, the more he hurt himself.
Next to follow Gronk’s early retirement lead might well be J.J. Watt. It would be hard to name a more physical practitioner of the game than this 6’5” 295 pound Houston defensive end. Though he had a healthy season last year, his playing style caught up with him the two previous years. Of 32 regular season games in 2016-17, the former Badger saw action in only eight of them. Watt is now 30.
A good comparison to Watt would be recently-retired Julius Peppers, who played in 266 of a possible 272 games in his career – the sixth most games played by a defensive player in NFL history. He was also a physical specimen and he used his physicality on every play, but he did not play out of control or without regard to his well-being.
We might also make a comparison between Gronkowski and Cowboys’ tight end Jason Witten. Similar in size at 6’6” and 265 pounds, Jason, after his rookie season in 2003, missed two games in the next 14 years. He holds the record for most consecutive games played by a tight end (including playoffs), at 235.
He also ranks fourth in the NFL in career receptions, behind only Jerry Rice, Tony Gonzalez, and Larry Fitzgerald. Gronkowski may have had all the glitz, but Witten still has his health. Gronkowski is leaving the game with 7,860 yards in receptions. Witten is returning to the game, after retiring for a year – and he’ll be adding to his 12,448 receiving yards.
We can add to the list of injury hazards: reckless and/or extremely violent playing styles.