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TARA SULLIVAN

Rob Gronkowski’s tough decision about whether to retire? Mark Bavaro gets it

Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski has played the equivalent of an entire additional season in playoff games.
Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski has played the equivalent of an entire additional season in playoff games.(JIM DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF)

March 24 editor’s note: Rob Gronkowski has announced his retirement. For more, click here.

There’s been no word (yet) from Rob Gronkowski about his football future, whether he has decided to ride at least one more year with the Patriots or feels his body has taken enough punishment for one football lifetime. In fairness to everybody’s favorite tight end, no one should be rushing him into an announcement. Retirement is an intensely personal decision, and really represents the last big one professional athletes get to make about their careers. As such, it deserves to be made free of outside noise.

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Yet the fascination understandably remains, evident in just how thoroughly and consistently Gronk’s future intentions weaved their way through two weeks of Super Bowl conversation. Every day, at every podium in Atlanta, in the days leading up to the big game against the Rams and in the hours after winning it, Gronk was asked if he was done. He handled the incessant queries with grace and humor, but also with perspicacity, never actually revealing an answer. There were times, however, he drew back the curtain more than enough to reveal the depth of his internal struggle.

With equal eloquence, Gronk made it known how nine years in the NFL can wage a brutal physical war on your body while at the same time conduct a beautiful emotional symphony in your heart. The pain of ending the former should make it easy to walk away, except the pain of losing the latter makes it so hard to say goodbye.

By the time Gronkowski celebrates his 30th birthday on May 14, he’ll have three Super Bowl rings, a slew of statistical milestones, and a reputation as one of the game’s best ever to play his position. But he’ll also have a litany of injuries as evidence of the price he’s paid for those achievements. His work in the playoffs this year, coming as it did after a season of battling through ankle and back injuries, was a master class in tight end greatness. There was the powerful, steady blocking against the Chargers in the divisional round (as well as one crucial, tackle-busting catch) followed by his trademark clutch catches in both the AFC Championship game and the Super Bowl.

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As we wait to find out if that was his swan song, it’s interesting to note a career arc not unlike the man Gronkowski’s coach, Bill Belichick, so often compares him to. Mark Bavaro was 31 when he retired in 1995, having won two Super Bowls with the Giants while reshaping the tight end position into the complete pass-catching/run-blocking combination Gronkowski channels. Bavaro, too, paid a high physical price, and as such, can understand, perhaps as well as anyone, what factors Gronkowski is weighing now.

Two-time Super Bowl-winning tight end Mark Bavaro had a career similar to Rob Gronkowski’s. It was also derailed by injuries.
Two-time Super Bowl-winning tight end Mark Bavaro had a career similar to Rob Gronkowski’s. It was also derailed by injuries.(Paul Spinelli/AP/File)

Bavaro actually thought his career had ended four years earlier than it did, when a chronic knee injury got him released by the Giants after winning the Super Bowl at the end of the 1990 season. He sat out a year to recover, then signed with Cleveland (playing one season under then-head coach Belichick) and finished with two final years in Philadelphia, finally pushed into permanent retirement by surgery that fused a middle toe. Those final three seasons were arduous, filled with physical pain and emotional adjustments to new teammates. Yet looking back now, Bavaro wouldn’t trade them for anything, something to which Gronkowski might take note.

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“I don’t want to say that I had a choice to end my career or not, I kind of did, and I think that’s what he’s going through now,” Bavaro, 55, said from his Massachusetts home. “He definitely has a choice, it doesn’t seem anyone is forcing him out. Contractually he might be between a rock and a hard place, but I think they would love to have him back. Physically I don’t think there’s any one thing forcing him out. When I was playing, the last two years, when I went to Philly, I didn’t want to go, I didn’t want to play football anymore. It was too hard, it was too painful.

“I was 28/29 when I had my comeback and I thought I was an old man. I remember saying, ‘I don’t want to play anymore,’ but my father said, ‘I know it’s hard, there might be other things you want to do, but you’re a kid, you’ve got your whole life ahead of you, and you’re going to look back and you’re going to regret not playing for two or three more years.’

“My advice would be — when I left I really felt like I had squeezed every drop of football out of my body and I don’t have any regrets. I would think that a competitor like him, while it might be the wisest decision for your health and future to leave now, I think in the future you would look back and say, ‘Geez I really wish I hadn’t left some of those years on the table.’ Everyone is different. I know he also has a future in other things.

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“Overall I’m glad I played those extra years. I wish I had gotten two or three more.”

Maybe Gronk has a football future in other ways, perhaps converting to a primarily blocking tight end, a No. 2 man on the depth chart (“He could be your great blocking tight end for probably 10 years if he wanted,” Bavaro said). That could be a way to offset what Bavaro best explains as the challenge of wanting to run routes like a receiver but after years of battling with heavyweight linebackers down low and hard-hitting safeties up top.

“Playing tight end, it’s a difficult position to play,” Bavaro said. “Overall it’s really not any more demanding than any other position. In some instances it’s less. I think running backs, back when they were the focus of offenses, they took the beating, they were the shortest careers. Middle linebackers, boy those guys dealt with a lot of bumps and bruises. Linemen, the constant pounding. But the thing with tight ends, as opposed to other positions, once they get nicked and once they start to lose a little bit of athleticism due to the wear and tear, their star drops dramatically. You can’t run out for those passes, you can’t get open. You can tough it out, sure, but you lose that explosiveness.”

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Gronkowski sure seemed like himself in the playoffs, but he was candid about the physical pain he endures after every game, and when you consider he’s added an entire additional season to his body in postseason games alone (16 appearances with a whopping 1,163 yards and 12 touchdowns) you can see it going either way. So can Bavaro.

“Gronk retiring would not be a mistake, he’s got a long life ahead of him,” Bavaro said. “But he’s a football player and football players like to play football. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him back next year.

This catch by Rob Gronkowski set up a key touchdown by Sony Michel in Super Bowl 53.
This catch by Rob Gronkowski set up a key touchdown by Sony Michel in Super Bowl 53.(Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff)

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