Gronkowski's last stand upends Rams in Super Bowl LIII

Rob Gronkowski photo courtesy USA Today.
Ron Borges

If this was his final aria, Rob Gronkowski’s swan song if you will, he was no diva. He was still deadly.

There is no denying the Patriots’ massive tight end is breaking down. He is beaten up, his explosion is fading and he is no longer sure that playing football is the best use of what remains of his body. He is like an old oak, still formidable but creaking when the wind blows.

Some members of the Patriots' staff believe his physical decline has been a result of his recent adherence to the TB12 training methods of Tom Brady’s Yoko Ono, personal trainer and resident guru Alex Guerrero. The truth is that whether Gronkowski has given up barbells for elastic bands or not, the true source of his numerous ills is not his chosen personal trainer but rather his chosen profession.

It is not training methods that have beaten down Rob Gronkowski. It is the corrosive demands of pro football.

A year ago, after the Patriots lost Super Bowl LII to the Philadelphia Eagles, Gronk hinted that he wasn’t sure if he’d be back or not. In the end he returned, but was a shadow of the dominant player he’d once been. He was good but no longer great, and so again this week he hinted he wasn’t sure if pro football was in his future beyond Sunday night.

He struggled Sunday night in the first half of Super Bowl LIII, as did the rest of his team. The Los Angeles Rams, the Patriots’ formidable opponents, did the same.

After three quarters the game was tied 3-3, the lowest third quarter score in Super Bowl history, and Gronk had been nonexistent, as had the rest of his offense.

He had four catches in the first half for 40 yards but had made no impact, the defensive game plan of the Rams’ wily coordinator Wade Phillips bottling him up and baffling the Patriots. With 9:49 to play and the game still tied, Gronk had not caught a second-half pass. It is difficult to be 6-6 and 268 pounds and remain invisible, but he was accomplishing that and little more.

And then, like an unexpected summer thunderstorm, there he was, rumbling up the sidelines with Rams’ linebacker Samson Ebukam unable to keep up as he hauled in a Brady throw for an 18-yard gain that got the Patriots moving.

Remember that guy?

Three plays later he exploded again, taking over the game like the Gronk of old, as he sprinted past linebacker Cory Littleton and ignored the looming appearance of fast approaching defensive backs Marcus Peters and John Johnson III as the ball spiraled perfectly through the night and downward in his direction.

Gronkowski has been hit enough in his nine-year NFL career to know what was coming next. He was going to get crunched one more time. Or perhaps for one last time.

At that moment it didn’t matter. All that mattered was that he make one more car-wreck collision worth the pain. One more time he had to haul in a pass that was coming toward him … with pain attached.

And so he did, reaching up and picking the ball out of the night air for a 29-yard reception that landed softly in his hands an instant before he landed harshly on the turf of Mercedes-Benz Field, his body shuttering once as he hit and then coming to rest two yards from the goal line.

One play later Sony Michel plowed through a big hole in the Rams’ defense for a 10-3 lead that, in the end, iced the Patriots’ sixth Super Bowl victory, a 13-3 dog fight that would not have been possible if not for Gronk suddenly, for two plays, turning back the clock, shaking off the aches and pains and doubts of a beaten up body and a dented mind, and doing what he has done so many times before.

“Tom threw it to me and I had to make a play,’’ Gronkowski said of the only two catches he would make in the second half. “I just come through whenever it needs that time. He knows to trust in me and throw that ball and I’m going to go grab it.

“(Super Bowl MVP) Julian (Edelman) was making plays. Now it was my turn. Tom put the ball where it needed to be. I had to go get it.

“I knew the ball coming. I saw the coverage. It was the same coverage as the play before when we ran it. I'm pretty sure it was two plays before when I would up in the same spot. (Offensvie coordinator Josh) McDaniels saw it and I saw the same coverage, same play call.

"I just knew it was going to come to me. I just understand how we work as an offense, understand the play calling. We've been together for how many years now? I knew it was going to come to me and i knew I had to make the play. When it comes to crunch time, I always find a way.’’

That has been the story for most of the past nine seasons on the days when he was healthy enough to play at all. But those days have become fewer and fewer each year as his surgically repaired back, knee, elbow, quad – take your pick – throbbed for various reasons.

Gronkowski hasn’t played a full season in seven years and missed 13 games in the past three. This year he had a career-low three touchdown catches and was not a particularly significant factor in how their season had gone.

Sunday in Atlanta it seemed like it was going to be more of the same after he got low-bridged in the third quarter, and his quad began to tighten up like a piano wire.

"It hurts a lot,'' he admitted. "I can barely walk right now. It tightened up.

"Adrenaline was flowing throughout the game. It's the Super Bowl. I've had those quad shots about four times now. Probably won't be able to walk that good tomorrow but it's all good because we're the Super Bowl champs.''

As time drained away and the offense remained mired in the morass Wade Phillips' creative mind kept leading them, one began to wonder if the long stalled Patriots were terminally locked in first gear. More and more one thought began to drift through the minds of the highly partisan Patriots' crowd that had jammed Mercedes-Benz Stadium in red, white and blue. Perhaps, like last year, this wasn't going to be their day.

Then, suddenly, Gronk reappeared like the Ghost of Christmas Past. He was back, if only for a moment, running up the sideline with a linebacker floundering to catch up. In the past, Ebukam might not have caught him but this was old Gronk and he was tripped up from behind after netting 18 yards.

Still it was a start … and soon he would be the end for the Rams, running free up the seam three plays later like he’d done so many times before when he was the best tight end football had ever seen. As the ball came down and three defenders closed in around him he knew two things were coming. He was going to take a lick and he was going to catch a football before he did.

He was going to feel pain but not as bad as the pain he was going to inflict on the Los Angeles Rams. He was going to make the play one more time, be the Gronk of old not just old Gronk.

And so he did.

"Incredible catch,'' Brady said later of his over the shouler reception. "He's an awesome player. He just had an incredible game.''

Actually not quite. But it was an incredible few moments at the most critical time, the latest in a long string of them that may one day soon be coming to an end.

""The best players show up at the best time,'' Patriots' center David Andrews said of Gronk. "It was a hell of a catch.''

If it is the last he ever makes it was fitting that it was an acrobatic one that demanded his unique blend of athleticism, speed, concentration, hand-eye coordination, intellect and, most of all, true grit. Truth is, without the latter, he doesn't make that last catch or a lot of the others he's made the past nine years. Fortunately for the Patriots, grit is the last bit of greatness that fades.

“This is surreal,’’ Rob Gronkowski finally said before he walked away from the podium after winning his third Super Bowl in the past five years. “Everything we’ve been through this season. Just unreal.

“It’s a grind throughout the whole season playing football. Taking those hits all the time. I don’t know what I’m going to do. The future will be decided in a few weeks. Tonight it’s about celebrating with my teammates.’’

Whether it was for the last time or only the next time, Rob Gronkowski, battered but not beaten, could say as he had after so many other victories on days when he felt a lot better than he did yesterday, “You soy fiesta.’’

Yes, he is the party. So let the party begin ... even if the party’s over.

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