A Star Is Born
Gronked: To throw something down to the ground with great force, like football player Rob Gronkowski does after each touchdown. After I finished my exam, I Gronked my pencil in a show of exuberance.
In September 2009, twenty-year-old Rob Gronkowski lay in bed, eyes directed at the sterile hospital ceiling. Just out of surgery, he felt like an anchor was strapped to his back. Movements were limited and tentative. A sudden shift drew sharp daggers raking against his spine. Pain had never been something he feared. Growing up in a house with four brothers, physical contact was a daily routine. As the starting tight end at the University of Arizona, he had both received and delivered major hits over the years. But this moment, coming out of surgery, was one of the most uncertain in his life.
There were legitimate questions about whether he would ever play football again. Rob never let those fears take root. Doctors had been optimistic, but there were no guarantees. And if not football, then what would he do?
The sport had defined Rob’s life. His father had been a college football player who briefly played in the United States Football League (USFL) in the early 1980s. His other brother Dan, a fellow tight end, had been drafted by the Detroit Lions, while another brother, Chris, transferred from the University of Maryland after two years to play fullback alongside Rob at Arizona. The sport ran through the family’s veins.
Even at a young age, Rob displayed freakish size and physical talent. He ended his senior year of high school as a six feet six SuperPrep All-American, developing blocking skills to complement eight receptions for 152 yards and four touchdowns. College-scholarship offers flooded his mailbox. In two years at Arizona, he set the school’s single-game, single-season, and career records as a tight end for receptions, yards, and touchdowns.
His personality was goofy, fun-loving. It was rare to see the big boy angry or depressed. He went through each day with a smile on his face, eager to be on the field where he could line up and hit someone. There was one dream, one goal, and he had been groomed for it since he was just a little kid. Rob planned to star in the NFL.
It couldn’t possibly be over, could it?
“Robbie hurt his back in the weight room doing a dead lift,” his father Gordy explained. “It was the off-season after his sophomore year in college. He knew he was hurt, but thought it was just a sore back. He kept working out and running routes but was getting slower.”
Back issues were not without precedent in the Gronkowski family. Rob’s oldest brother, Gordie, an All-American baseball player, had suffered a herniated disk a few years earlier when in college. Once a promising major-league prospect, his injuries caused many teams to reconsider selecting him in the draft. The second brother, Dan, experienced occasional back spasms.
“I was definitely scared,” Rob recalled. “Pain started in April and kept getting worse and worse. I didn’t know what was going on, but I kept grinding harder because the harder you went, you didn’t feel the pain for that hour. Eventually, one day, it cut off my whole nervous system going into my legs. I couldn’t jump more than three inches. I kept going, but it was half-speed. I got it checked out and doctors discovered bulging and herniated disks.”
Having watched one son’s career veer off course because of this, Gordy wanted to be sure his other boys were protected. He had planned ahead for such a contingency.
“I took out a four-million-dollar insurance policy on Rob,” Gordy said. “The insurance company believed Rob had value because he was projected to be a first- or second-round NFL draft pick. I tried to get a policy for Chris, but I couldn’t. The company didn’t believe he had value.”
Rob’s injury occurred in the L5 vertebra, located in the lower back between the hips. In addition, an MRI revealed a closing of the spinal chamber. When Rob did not work out, the affected area settled and did not bother him. But how could a football player have a career in which he didn’t work out?
“Some doctors told us he shouldn’t play,” Gordy said. “Others said if the swelling goes down, he should be OK. And Rob at first tried to bluff and say he was fine before the surgery. But it reached a point where I could tell he was hurting, so I shut him down. He was done playing college football until this got fixed. I wasn’t making many friends in Arizona, but this is my kid, you know?”
No one was quite sure how to proceed, because when Rob relaxed and did not work out, the pain lessened. The injury was not debilitating. If Rob stopped training and playing football, he could live a comfortable life. But the professional opinion was that eventually, as he aged, Rob would need surgery to repair the spine.
Gordy searched for the best back specialist around. One name kept recurring: Robert Watkins, a doctor from California who’d performed surgery on athletes with injuries similar to Rob’s. The doctor laid out options.
“We went around and around about Rob’s surgery,” Gordy said. “He had choices. One was to not have surgery and never play football again but get four million dollars. The other was don’t collect the money but have surgery and hope that everything comes out right. It wasn’t an easy choice. It’s a serious operation. One slip down there and you’re dealing with the vertebrae and spinal cord.”
The insurance policy was both a blessing and a curse. If Rob elected to walk away from football, he would be financially set for life at only twenty years old. Even though he had played only two years of college football and sat out his junior year because of the injury, Rob was talented enough that the NFL was still interested. Could he forgo his junior year of college and make a leap to the pros despite surgery?
“Four million dollars is a lot of money,” Gordy mused. “With investments, I knew he could get five percent back in tax-free bonds. If he took the insurance policy, he could collect two hundred thousand tax-free every year. But if you have the operation it’s like rolling the dice.”
Rob ultimately made the decision: he didn’t want to become wealthy from an insurance policy. He preferred to earn it. Rob agreed to back surgery, knowing it was a perilous path: his body needed to remain straight and avoid sideways moves for six weeks afterward. Recovery would be difficult, with no guarantees.
“The money was not a consideration at all,” Rob said. “We were confident because of the doctor and his background. We knew he was the best. I never looked at the money option one bit. I just wanted to keep playing football, and that’s what I did.”
Gordy honored his son’s wishes, admiring his attitude. He and his former wife had raised their boys to work hard. None expected to be handed rewards without earning them.
“I had never had surgery, never been knocked out on anesthesia before, so it was scary,” Rob admitted. “For the first three days, my whole back was stiff. I wondered if I would heal, but you feel better every week. I just chilled for a month...