Patriots tight end Michael Hoomanawanui was always proud of how quickly he worked his way back from a torn ACL. He suffered the injury in November 2011 while with the Rams, had surgery at Christmas, and was back on the field with the Patriots the next season, playing 14 games.
Proud, that is, until he got a front-row seat to Rob Gronkowski’s return from a torn ACL and MCL over the last 11 months.
“You look at a timetable, I thought mine was quick,” Hoomanawanui said. “Then I look at his, and it puts mine to shame. Obviously, he’s just a freak.”
Gronkowski is having an MVP-caliber season for the Patriots, with 49 catches for 663 yards and eight touchdowns. He’s beating double coverage, tossing defenders to the ground, and providing that much-needed jolt of energy and enthusiasm to the offense, just like the Gronk of old.
But what makes his performance so remarkable, though, is that Gronk wasn’t supposed to be Gronk yet. Most ACL athletes say they’re not back to 100 percent health and confidence until their second season following surgery. Gronkowski suffered the injury last Dec. 8, had surgery Jan. 9, practiced with his teammates on the first day of training camp, and, after slowly working back into the lineup the first four weeks, has reclaimed his throne as the league’s most dominant and punishing tight end.
His impact on the Patriots’ offense is obvious. In the first four games this year, when he was playing only 50 percent of snaps, the Patriots averaged 20 points and 298 yards. In his last five games, with Gronkowski playing 80 percent of snaps, the Patriots have averaged 40.2 points and 421.8 yards. And in his five NFL seasons, Gronkowski has never had a better five-game stretch than the one he just produced, with 516 yards and five touchdowns.
That Gronk is dominating the NFL again less than a year removed from a devastating knee injury is truly remarkable.
“I tell you, that’s been something that’s really impressed me, because I’ve gone through the same injury and it took me two years to really feel comfortable,” former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said of Gronkowski’s return. “He’s not afraid to go across the middle. A lot of times I was afraid when guys were falling around my knees, and I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m protecting my knee.’ But you don’t see that with Rob, no sense of hesitancy. He’s just out there playing football, and he looks so comfortable.”
Count Tom Brady, who knows all about coming back from a torn ACL, among those impressed by Gronkowski’s progress.
“He works extremely hard,” Brady said. “I think he really pushed himself to get to the point where he’s at, because it is a tough injury. The one thing about my experience with a knee injury is you just have to keep pushing yourself. It takes a lot of mental toughness to do that.”
Current and former players aren’t the only ones impressed by Gronkowski’s rapid comeback.
A former NFL team doctor who fixed dozens of knee injuries in more than 15 years on the sidelines said Gronkowski’s recovery is “definitely not normal” and is impressed by his progress for several reasons.
The doctor noted that Gronkowski is coming back from a multiligament injury (ACL and MCL), “so he’s working harder.” For comparison, 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman suffered an ACL/MCL injury in January and still hasn’t returned to play. He had his knee examined again last week and might be shut down for good.
The doctor also noted that while most ACL tears come on noncontact plays — think Carson Palmer last week — Gronkowski suffered significant knee trauma when T.J. Ward launched his helmet into Gronkowski’s knee. Yet unlike with his previous forearm injury, Gronkowski was more in control of his return to the field, and his high level of play now is a direct result of his work in rehab.
“Work ethic doesn’t help in a broken arm situation, but in a torn ligament situation, it definitely does,” the doctor said. “The upside is there’s still more to come. What’s he going to look like six weeks from now? Even better.”
Gronkowski’s knee was repaired by famed orthopedic surgeon James Andrews, and Gronk split his time this offseason between rehabbing with Andrews’s team near Pensacola, Fla., and with the Patriots’ training staff in Foxborough.
He’s hesitant to talk about his rehab — partly because the Patriots don’t like to say much publicly about injuries, and partly because he doesn’t want to jinx himself.
Gronkowski was kept away from the media spotlight during his rehab. There was no marketing campaign designed around his return, such as with NBA star Derrick Rose, and Robert Griffin III, and he went about his work quietly. But Gronkowski was determined not let the knee injury derail his promising career.
“I busted my tail since Week 1,” he said Wednesday. “Wherever I was, it was about two to three hours a day. And lifting, too, to keep upper body strength. I rehab still every week, make every muscle in the body stronger as much as possible and be ready for Sunday.”
Gronkowski, who missed six-plus games in 2012 with a broken forearm and 11-plus games last year with forearm, back, and knee injuries, acknowledged that facing another long rehab last offseason seemed daunting at times.
“Definitely hard to stay motivated,” he said. “But you see your guys working around you, and you want to be back with them. I believe just going out and practicing hard and being around football every week just gets you better.”
Gronkowski certainly had his fun during the offseason, but he didn’t party like it was the Summer of Gronk, either. He kept a low profile, stuck to his strict rehab schedule, and now gets to enjoy the fruits of his hard work.
“He likes to have fun but he’s here early, stays late, and gets his work done, first and foremost,” said Hoomanawanui. “I don’t think there’s a negative bone in that guy’s body. He’s always been about this team, and the guys in that room.”
“Definitely amazed by him. It’s just a testament to his hard work and God-given ability.”
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin