TAMPA — Rob Gronkowski stood in the sun Tuesday morning, practically panting like a dog in the 90-degree heat.
The Buccaneers’ practice lasted less than two hours, and the players didn’t wear pads, but the humidity of August in Florida is no joke. Gronkowski was physically drained after working with the first-team offense, running deep seam routes until he was red in the face. Gronkowski also had a streak of blood trickling down his right leg after sustaining a gash.
“Yeah, the last play,” Gronkowski said. “I got cleated right off of my shin. That one’s going to sting for a little bit.”
Gronkowski doesn’t need any of this. Now 32, Gronkowski retired once already, and he could be sitting on a beach somewhere with a fruity drink in his hand. He’s got four Super Bowl rings, millions of dollars in the bank, and a lifetime of business opportunities awaiting him.
Yet Gronkowski is exactly where he wants to be, grinding away in training camp, catching touchdown passes from Tom Brady, and getting ready for his 11th NFL season, his second in Tampa Bay.
“It makes me feel accomplished,” Gronkowski said in a one-on-one interview with the Globe after Tuesday’s practice. “I’ve been there before where I just sit around for five days straight, and by the fifth day I’m just sitting there wondering what’s going on with my life. This just makes me feel accomplished to come out here, put my body on the line, put my skills on the line to get the trust of my teammates. At the end of the day, it just feels good to be part of an organization and go out there and play some football and have fun with it.”
By the end of his nine-year tenure in New England, Gronkowski’s body was a wreck, and he had burned out on football and the Patriot Way. He opted to retire for the 2019 season and forgo a $10 million salary instead of putting himself through the grinder again.
Gronkowski said he had fun in 2019 — working for Fox, endorsing products, and having the freedom to do as he pleased — but said he sometimes felt adrift by not being part of a football team.
“Being an analyst with all the Fox people, that was the closest thing to a team. That was a fun atmosphere,” Gronkowski said. “But at times I was like, ‘Oh man, I’ve got to find more things to do.’ Because it can get boring, and I’m too young to just be sitting around right now. It’s great to be back out there, and I feel accomplished when I go home every day.”
Gronkowski was already going to the Pro Football Hall of Fame if he never played another down after 2018. But what he and Brady accomplished last year — leaving the Patriots, coming to Tampa, and winning a Super Bowl — will go down as one of the greatest mic drop moments in sports history. Gronkowski scored two touchdowns in the Super Bowl, perhaps cementing his legend as the best tight end of all time.
“It was truly unbelievable, for sure. It’s a great story,” Gronkowski said. “This organization here is fantastic, and we just got a lot of great players on this team, too, a lot of guys that are unselfish and a lot of guys that worked hard.”
Gronkowski is finally getting settled into life as a Buccaneer after a strange 2020 season. He’s more acclimated to the humidity (the heat index was already well over 90 degrees when Tuesday’s practice began at 8:45 a.m.). He has the freedom to warm up on his own at the beginning of practice, diligently putting himself through a stretching routine while his teammates work on special teams.
Gronkowski looks thinner than during his Patriots days and said his body feels “real good.” He still gets massages and does other work with Alex Guerrero at the TB12 facility that Brady had built a mile away from the Buccaneers’ practice facility.
“About to head there right now, actually,” Gronkowski said.
And he’s feeling comfortable in the offense. Last year at this time, Gronkowski was simultaneously working himself back into football shape and trying to learn a new playbook. Now he knows the offense and is more acclimated to the heat.
“It’s night and day from where I was last year in training camp to where I am now,” he said.
Gronkowski signed a one-year deal with the Buccaneers worth $8 million guaranteed, plus $1.5 million in incentives. He’s not making any decisions about 2022 until he’s done with 2021.
“I’m year to year, for sure. A hundred percent,” he said.
Gronkowski said he will always have “a special place in my heart” for his time in New England. Though he hasn’t been a Patriot since the 2018 season, Gronkowski was back in Boston in May dedicating a new playground through his foundation.
“Whenever I go back, people welcome me with open arms, and it feels good,” he said. “I gave it all I had in the nine years there, gained so many friendships and relationships while I was up there. So that’s always going to be a big place in my heart and it’s always enjoyable when I go back.”
About that …
Gronkowski was asked to fill in the blank: Week 4, when the Buccaneers play the Patriots at Gillette Stadium, will be:
“Epic,” he said. “How can it not be?”
Gronkowski then was asked what it will be like to face his old teammates and coaches.
“You know, we’re in the middle of training camp right now,” he said. “When that week comes, I’m sure that’s when the emotions will start flying. But just focusing in right now on being a better football player and staying in shape.”
With a wink, he added: “Like I said, I’ve learned a lot of things up in New England.”