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tara sullivan

The Gronk-Tom Brady reunion Patriots fans craved will happen . . . just not the way you wanted it

Patriots fans took a second body blow this offseason when Rob Gronkowski (right) followed Tom Brady to Tampa Bay.
Patriots fans took a second body blow this offseason when Rob Gronkowski (right) followed Tom Brady to Tampa Bay.Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff

The Good Ship Gronk officially departed Port Patriot Tuesday, sailing south to join the Ocean Liner Tom Brady in a party boat reunion for the football ages. Happily docking together at Tampa Bay’s welcoming shores, these two Patriots-turned-Bucs are poised to take on the NFC, to challenge the Saints for the type of divisional supremacy they were accustomed to up north, a belief that their friendship, familiarity, and knowledge of the Patriot Way can be imported into a new locker room.

For football fans outside New England, the prospect of their journey is ridiculously appetizing, a story line so filled with intrigue and interest that even the anticipation is delicious.

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Whatever questions there are about how much is left in Brady’s 42-year-old tank, his miles per gallon are boosted considerably by having the 30-year-old Rob Gronkowski by his side. That the reunion happened because Gronk decided it was not so much that he’d retired from football but that he’d retired from Bill Belichick only adds to the drama, affirming how much Brady felt the same way upon entering free agency this offseason.

So what is a Patriots fan to make of it all? The Gronk move is like a second body blow to the base, another reminder of how much has changed across the strangest offseason on record, primarily because of the coronavirus pandemic, of course, but exacerbated nonetheless by the shocking changes to the team’s roster.

The Brady departure was foreshadowed all season. But Gronk? He was supposed to be finished with football, happy to hawk CBD oil, dance around wrestling rings, and become a masked singer.

Instead, he staged his own version of the devastating scene in the best romantic comedy of them all, “When Harry Met Sally,” the one in which Meg Ryan’s character learns that her former live-in boyfriend is engaged to another woman.

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“All this time I thought he didn’t want to get married,” she cries to Billy Crystal’s Harry Burns. “But the truth is, he didn’t want to marry me.”

And Gronk didn’t want to be retired; he just didn’t want to play for the Patriots.

But the truth is also this: As much as he can affect them in the court of public opinion, a retired Gronk had no football value to the Patriots other than as the trade bait for the additional draft pick they got from the Bucs. His $10 million remaining salary would have blown their cap anyway, and staying retired until they found him a deal helped both parties get what they wanted.

For the Patriots to get any return on a player who was never going to compete for them again is a bonus, even if it meant allowing the big lug to run, refreshed after a year away from the game, into the waiting arms of his one true football love.

“Playing with Tom is special. He’s one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. Building a bond with a quarterback is special,” Gronkowski said during an online press conference Wednesday.

They built it in New England, but now they’re taking it on the road. Without the man behind it.

In New England, Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski were teammates from 2010 until 2018.
In New England, Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski were teammates from 2010 until 2018.AP/Associated Press

“I’m not going to sit here and say it’s an easy organization to play for,” Gronkowski said, “and I’ve also never played for another organization. I haven’t even been down to Tampa yet, I’m not even sure what to expect. I know the New England Patriots is not the easiest place to play but it gets you right, it gets you mentally right, it gets you physically right. What I’ve learned there, I’m definitely going to take it with me.”

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History says NFL dream teams don’t succeed much; just ask the 2019 Browns or the 2011 Eagles. Adding free agents is no magic formula for success, a truism Belichick has been proven better than anyone. His penchant for pushing mid-level talent to the top and keeping top-level players only until they are no longer useful faces its toughest test yet, but he certainly has done it before.

He once took a risk on Gronk, who came out of college with concerns of being injury-prone. Now close your eyes and picture what Gronkowski became. Remember the way he ruled the field, appreciate the magic he and Brady performed across nine seasons together and cherish those three Lombardi Trophies they contributed to Boston’s amazing sports renaissance.

Gronkowski was a football unicorn, capable of transforming himself into an extra offensive lineman and blocking like a road grader one week, then coming back the next to revert to the pass-catching behemoth who could move his tree-like physique with the grace of a ballerina.

That was the two-game stretch Gronk gave us in January 2019, when his efforts to support the run almost singlehandedly upended the high-flying Chargers in an AFC divisional game, and his route-running dominance did the same to Kansas City a week later in an overtime AFC championship win.

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Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski are set to take their hijinks to Tampa Bay.
Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski are set to take their hijinks to Tampa Bay.Jessica Rinaldi

Next up was the Super Bowl.

And who can forget Gronk’s final catch that night, his grab midway through the fourth quarter representative of everything he was about. He laid out his body among three defenders. Tough. He held onto the ball despite bodies nipping at his heels and clawing at his arms. Clutch. He moved into just the right position for Brady, knowing his friend would find him. Smart.

He put it all together for the most important play of the game, 29 yards to the Rams’ 2-yard line to set up Sony Michel for the pivotal score.

“It feels good to make that one big play,” Gronk would say afterward. “Tom threw that ball where it needed to be, went and made the play, so it was huge.”

And then, reflecting on a season that saw him hampered by injury and beset by doubts, one that included the image of his desperation non-tackle at the end of the last-second Miracle in Miami loss to the Dolphins, Gronk said this: “It was the most satisfying year I’ve ever been a part of, how we came together, the obstacles we had to overcome. … It was life; we went through life this year and stuck together.”

Together, then apart, and now, together again. Let the party begin.

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Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.