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The Boston Globe

Sports

Christopher L. Gasper

Durability of Rob Gronkowski still in question

There are two things that can stop Rob Gronkowski from fulfilling his potential to become one of the greatest tight ends in NFL history — injuries and himself.

The two have conspired this offseason to do what few NFL defenses have been able to do since Gronkowski entered the league in 2010 — slow down the five-letter football force of nature known as Gronk.

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Gronkowski’s recovery from a twice-broken left forearm has been painfully slow and plagued by infection and conjecture about his offseason activities.

Gronkowski finally got some good news on the injury front Monday, as a fourth procedure on his broken forearm revealed that the persistent infection in the arm had been eradicated, according to multiple reports.

The infection is gone, but questions about the long-term durability of Gronkowski, who could also be facing back surgery this offseason, remain. Gronkowski might be barreling down the road to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, or he could be destined for the breakdown lane, a place strewn with truncated careers, broken dreams, wistful what-ifs, and surgical scars.

The fun-loving lug is one of the most physically imposing players the NFL has seen. He is LeBron James-esque in his physical dominance.

Who can forget when he brushed off 260-pound Washington defensive end Ryan Kerrigan like he was a piece of lint to catch a short lob from Brady and gallop 37 yards for a touchdown in 2011?

Gronkowski is a player who defies defensive coverage. Only Randy Moss and Jerry Rice caught more touchdown passes in their first three NFL seasons than Gronkowski, who had 38. He hauled in 11 touchdowns in 11 games last season and was on his way to another 1,000-yard receiving campaign when he suffered the first of his two fractures to the forearm.

His importance to the Patriots has only been heightened after the departure of Tom Brady security blanket Wes Welker. A healthy Gronkowski inflicting pain on opposing defenses is sine qua non to the Patriots’ Super Bowl aspirations.

Gronk is a dynamic threat, but also a threat to get hurt with all the contact he not only endures, but invites.

The hope is that years from now we won’t look back at the career of Gronkowski and wonder “what if . . . ?” What if he had stayed healthy? What if he had never broken his forearm against Indianapolis blocking on an extra point?

The fear is that a player with such a bruising, bullying style of play resides in the perishables aisle of pro football stardom.

That’s why the most impressive stat among the many Gronkowski has compiled in his first three seasons was the fact that prior to the forearm injury he suffered in November against Indianapolis, he had played in the first 46 games of his NFL career, regular season and postseason.

But he has ended the last two seasons as if opponents were sticking pins in a Gronk voodoo doll.

He was a shell of himself in Super Bowl XLVI, hobbled by torn ligaments in his ankle, and he was out of commission with his second break of the forearm when the Patriots lost this past season’s AFC Championship game to the Baltimore Ravens.

At 6 feet 6 inches and 265 pounds, Gronkowski plays the game like an 18-wheeler with no brakes, crashing and careening into and through everything in his path.

Playing that way he’s bound to get dinged and dented. It’s not a question of if he gets injured again. It’s when, how seriously, and will he be able to play through it?

That’s why it is a bit ironic that the forearm injury originally happened on one of the most innocuous plays in all of professional football, an extra point.

Gronkowski then rebroke the forearm in the AFC divisional playoffs against the Houston Texans, trying to make a diving grab out of bounds.

Gronkowski could be the Earl Campbell of NFL tight ends — a bruising, bullying phenom whose style of play takes a toll on opponents and eventually his own body.

Even more so than Gronkowski, Campbell was a supernova in pads. He took the NFL by storm and force, winning rushing titles his first three years and drawing comparisons with Jim Brown. He rushed for 55 touchdowns his first four seasons in the league, but only 19 in his last four seasons.

Campbell played eight NFL seasons and made the Hall of Fame, but he was never the same back he was during his transcendent first three seasons. Now, the great “Tyler Rose” struggles to walk without the aid of a cane or a walker.

After the Canton-bound coach-quarterback coupling of Bill Belichick and Brady, there might not be a Patriot more vital to the cause than the 24-year-old Gronkowski, which is why contemplating any question about his long-term health is unpleasant.

One of the reasons Gronkowski slipped to the Patriots in the second round in 2010 was that he missed the entire 2009 season at the University of Arizona after he had surgery to shave a protruding disk in his lower back.

Some teams took Gronkowski off their draft boards.

The Patriots gambled on Gronkowski’s body, and it has paid off.

But there is also a reason that the team built a $10 million option bonus into the $55-million contract extension Gronkowski signed last June. The bonus, due in 2016, triggers the final four years of the eight-year agreement the Patriots have with Gronk. That’s where the big money in the deal is. The first four years of the deal are really more like a four-year, approximately $18.6 million contract.

The Patriots protected themselves. Gronkowski doesn’t have that luxury.

When healthy, Gronkowski is the best all-around tight end in the game.

But how often Gronk can remain healthy could be the key to his career.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com.

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