There once was a tight end better than the rest, a player so talented he could shed multiple blockers at the line of scrimmage to clear a path for a running back or make his own way downfield, a guy so tough to handle that defenses had no choice but to gang up to stop him.
Sometimes, even the double- and triple-team efforts weren’t enough, and the tight end would drag overmatched opponents down the field, their bodies trailing after him like a string of bells tied to a wedding car. He was that good, that tough, that determined to complete his task.
But the effort took its toll, and over time those defenses did enough damage that the tight end had had enough. With injuries mounting, he quit playing, leaving the NFL for what he thought was the final time.
Until it wasn’t.
When Mark Bavaro sat out the entire 1991 season with various injuries, the worst of which was a knee that needed surgery, he returned to his Massachusetts home believing a two-time Super Bowl-winning career with the Giants would complete a football résumé that began at Danvers High School, went through Notre Dame, and lasted six seasons in New York.
But a funny thing happened on the way to retirement. A year off from the game helped him heal enough to return, and the 6-foot-4 inch, 245-pound two-time All-Pro played three additional years in the NFL.
His re-entry came in Cleveland, where a familiar face drew him back in. Bill Belichick, who had coached Bavaro as an assistant with the Giants, had just gotten his first NFL head coaching job with the Browns, and he believed a tough, accomplished veteran could help his locker room, as a living, breathing example of the type of football he wanted the Browns to play.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, this is the long-winded way of saying Bavaro knows what Rob Gronkowski is going through, understands it in a way mere mortals cannot, seeing in Gronk what he once experienced himself (even if he chafes at the comparison to the Patriots’ five-time Pro Bowler, who stands an imposing 6-6 and played at nearly 270 pounds).
And from Bavaro’s point of view, Gronkowski’s decision to un-retire and play with his old buddy Tom Brady in Tampa Bay has every marking for success.
“Gronk might end up having more catches than ever," Bavaro said, "because now Brady is not going to be hamstrung offensively, at least not as much as he was in New England, I don’t believe, and he’s going to be struggling a little bit with a new system and environment, so guess who is going to be his security blanket?
“Gronk really did get beat up that last year with the Patriots, when they really had no other threats. Everybody just pounded on him. If you have other threats, you can’t do that.
“This could turn out to be pretty good for him.”
Gronkowski may not have experience with Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians, but there’s little doubt the reunion with Brady is the driving force behind the decision to play again. That and the year off from the battering he took on a regular basis, one that ended with a third Super Bowl title for him, but that might have been a lot less painful had the Patriots had weapons more like the type around him in Tampa, receivers like Mike Evans and Chris Godwin and fellow tight ends O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate. And that was before the Bucs drafted another speedy receiver in Tyler Johnson.
Gronk’s impact on the field might not be immediate, with the ongoing pause in action due to the coronavirus giving him either more time to get in shape or more time to lose his edge. Only time will tell. While Bavaro believes “without a doubt he’s going to be what he was; I have no concern about that,” he also cautioned this:
“It takes a while, I’m not going to lie. I probably had the worst game of my life ever at any level in the first game I played back with the Browns. We played the Indianapolis Colts and I couldn’t get off the line of scrimmage. After the game I questioned whether I made the right decision. But then, after that, it came back pretty quick.”
Regardless of what Gronk can do on the field, Bavaro knows having him and Brady mingling with a whole new locker room is what might help the Bucs most.
“Any true football player is hungry for success, even the guys who might have given up on the hope of winning Super Bowls, that are in it for money, fame, personal glory, or stats,” Bavaro said, “and when there’s a hint or a whiff of a championship possibility, most of those guys will put that self-interest away.
"Everyone wants to be rich and famous, but a really true football player — and you have to be a true football player to get into the NFL — wants to win championships. The saddest part for most of these guys is that they get to that level, and they’ve got no shot. They’re not on a team that has the right plan; there’s no environment to win.
“Now, with a guy like Brady coming in, with Gronk joining him, who knows who else is going to jump on that bandwagon?”
The encore didn’t work out that way for Bavaro, whose one season in Cleveland and two in Philadelphia were beset by more injuries (including a toe that had to be fused) and eventually put him in retirement for good, at age 31. But none of that changes his mind about it being the right decision to try.
“I think Gronk has plans for the future but I don’t think there are any plans that can’t be put off until every last drop of football is out of his system," Bavaro said. “So I always assumed he’d be back.
“I always thought after a year of healing up, despite past injuries, that he was young enough [Gronkowski turns 31 next month] that he’d still feel the ability and desire to play.
"I always felt he’d have the opportunity to play. I didn’t know where. I wasn’t a believer it would be the Patriots. I thought it was going to have to be another team.
"That was my expectation, and the advice I would have given him is that it’s not fun, going to another team, that it’s hard, and I thought that alone might dissuade him from doing it.
“But there’s one scenario I never figured in my mind, and that’s what is what’s going on right now. He surprises you when you don’t think there are surprises left.”