When I shook his hand, Rob Gronkowski’s fingertips reached the penumbra of my elbow. He gave me his goofball grin and a “What’s up, man?” and then began to consume various snacks (nuts, crackers, grapes) laid out on the table between us. He didn’t stop eating snacks until we’d finished talking, at which point he shook his head in wonderment that I had not eaten snacks. “That was unbelievable how you didn’t take any,” he marveled, eating another snack.
My meeting with Gronkowski—you know what? I’m gonna call him Gronk. Which is, I think, what Gronk would want. My meeting with Gronk was brokered through a company that’s launching a Gronk-branded line of CBD-infused products, which the former New England Patriots tight end is eager to promote via media appearances and, at least when I saw him, by wearing a hat with a pot leaf on it. I was not uninterested in what Gronk had to say about his new collection of tinctures and topical creams. But the truth was that I’d come to see Gronk for reasons of my own. Mainly, I wanted to know: Is Gronk OK?
Back in his playing days, Gronk had been an uncut dose of gridiron id. Blithe and powerful. Our Great American Football Galoot. It was as though meat and potatoes manifested as a 6-foot-6, 265-pound man.
But the last time I’d seen him—in footage of an August press conference, during which Gronk confirmed his retirement from football and announced this new CBD venture—Gronk did not look invulnerable. He looked verklempt. Gone were the pumped-up torso and cinder-block noggin of his NFL days. Half a year removed from his final game—a Super Bowl victory, in which he’d taken a brutal hit to his quad in the second quarter and made a crucial catch in the fourth—Gronk appeared shrunken. Almost gaunt. And more than a little sad. Standing before a room full of reporters, he at one point stifled tears. “Football was bringing me down, and I didn’t like it,” he said, explaining why he’d retired at the age of 29. “I was losing the joy in life.”
Now, in the room with me, Gronk seemed something in between a beaten man and a picture of post-retirement bliss. Fifteen pounds lighter than he’d been as a Patriot but looking healthy. Not exactly introspective but willing to talk about the pain and suffering he felt on the playing field. I hoped that looking Gronk in the eye might help me figure out if he’s truly happy. And if I should be happy for him.
In his 2015 autobiography, It’s Good to Be Gronk, Gronk describes an idyllic childhood in a Buffalo, New York, suburb spent beating the snot out of his brothers (and, in turn, having his own snot beaten out of him). Gronk’s father, known to all as Papa Gronk, maintained but two rules for his five boys, four of whom would make it to the NFL: “No punching to the face, or to the balls.”
A decent portion of Gronk’s book dwells on how physically large and powerful Gronk is. Here I cite a representative bit of reflection (from Chapter 2, titled “Becoming the Gronk”) about his high school football days: “I have to admit, it was totally awesome to be bigger, stronger, and faster than everybody else.” There are whole passages that chronicle how many pounds of muscle Gronk is able to add in a given time frame.
During Gronk’s college years at the University of Arizona, he lived off campus with a couple of other Gronk brothers in a house purchased for them by Papa Gronk. The brothers still fought with each other but now also drank alcohol and had sex with women. They’d sometimes spray dish soap on a long hallway, transforming it into an improvised, lubricated, 100-foot slip ’n’ slide. “Somebody was always naked,” Gronk reminisces in his book, “and the girls loved it when our underwear slid off.” The Gronk boys dubbed their house “Club G.” In Gronk’s telling, it was all good, clean, occasionally nude and violent fun.
Gronk became nigh cartoonish by the time he reached the pros. He was dominant on the field—by many accounts, the best tight end in NFL history. As a blocker, he steamrolled highways for running backs; as a pass catcher, he was longer and stronger than anyone who tried to cover him. For the football-watching kids of New England, Gronk was a superhero. I was riding the T in Boston a few NFL seasons ago when I overheard a mother talking to a young boy decked out in winter Pats gear. “It takes two guys to tackle Gronk,” said the mom, smiling, as though she were speaking of Thor or the Hulk. “Way more than two guys,” admonished the stone-faced child.
Off the field, Gronk was ingratiatingly eccentric. Patriots coach Bill Belichick recently explained that Gronk fell asleep on the floor during his pre-draft visit to Foxborough, Massachusetts. “Didn’t make a very good impression,” Belichick said. This didn’t stop Belichick from drafting him. In the years that followed, Gronk and Gronk alone brought levity to a team that prefers to treat success not as a wild ride but a grim march. Somehow, Gronk kept things Gronky while assimilating into Belichick’s hive, taking full advantage of the perquisites of stardom yet maintaining his focus on game days. In an interview with a Spanish-language reporter, he coined the nonsensical phrase “Yo soy fiesta”—“I am party”—and then made it his motto. One offseason, he hosted a nautical event dubbed “Gronk’s Party Ship,” during which he drank prodigiously and, according to a writer for Boston magazine, explained during a Q&A with fans that “he liked to be snuggled and have his arms tickled.”
Gronk was an enormous puppy forever humping the world’s leg. And the world didn’t mind. In A Gronking to Remember (book one of what was to become “the Rob Gronkowski Erotica Series”), author Lacey Noonan conjures a protagonist who, though she’d generally rather knit than watch sports, feels compelled to masturbate every time she sees Gronk spike a football. The woman contrives to sneak into the end zone at Gillette Stadium just as Gronk (whom she affectionately describes as “a giant male ox”) is about to celebrate a touchdown by unleashing a spike. Wouldn’t you know it, Gronk spikes the ball directly, as the narrator puts it, “between my buttcheeks,” which occasions an orgasm of unprecedented intensity.
The Gronk Spike—his real-life signature move—was the essence of Gronk, in that it blended maximum enthusiasm with minimal nuance. Gronk just threw the ball straight at the ground as hard as he could. There was something beautifully uncomplicated about this. As there was about Gronk.
What I loved about pre-retirement Gronk was how invincible he seemed, as a player and as a person. A juggernaut in uniform, who at any moment could decide to chuck an opponent into a camera stanchion 15 feet out of bounds. A caveman in the offseason, who seemed to do no harm and suffer no consequences despite his beefcake shenanigans.
I never once pondered Gronk’s state of mind. And the only time I worried about, or even considered, his health was when I thought it might prevent the Pats from winning games.
In an ugly brick-and-plexiglass building in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, on a ground floor otherwise dominated by the tiled lobby of a bank branch, one can find the offices of Abacus Health Products. The company launched in 2014 with a line of cannabidiol pain-relief ointments, called CBD Clinic, that it sold to chiropractors, acupuncturists, and other “health practitioners.” It’s since released a similar line of products, CBD Medic, that’s available over the counter in convenience stores and such.
I met Gronk in a cramped conference room in the Abacus headquarters. When I asked him how he got connected to the company, the details were sketchy (“Hell, I’m not really sure how that went down,” he chuckled), but he said that he first used the product a few months after retirement and that a friend of Papa Gronk’s had introduced it to the family. “I tried it … to help ease the pain on my toes that I stubbed,” said Gronk, “and it gave me relief.”
Gronk is now an Abacus investor and spokesman, repping CBD Medic’s assorted topical creams and sprays. He says he uses CBD Medic mostly to recover from workouts. He swears by it, partly on the basis of its pungent odor. “Even if you’re a couple feet away, people are always like, ‘What’s that smell?’ ” he said. “And that’s how powerful it is.”
Though you can find CBD in everything from pasta to shampoo these days, with all manner of claims made about its effects, there’s a fair amount of doubt as to whether it does anything at all. I find it telling that CBD isn’t listed as an active ingredient in CBD Medic. Its active ingredients are menthol and camphor—which are also active ingredients in topical pain products like Icy Hot and Tiger Balm.
Despite its dubious efficacy, CBD remains a banned substance in the NFL. Gronk says he’d like to lobby the league to permit it. If it had been legal when he was still playing, he says he would have used CBD Medic to treat his pain. “It would have been huge,” he told me. “I would have used it for my sore muscles, shots to the body, areas that are not feeling so good but you still gotta go play.”
There’s something a little squalid about Gronk’s foray into the world of CBD, an ecosystem replete with scuzzy mall kiosks selling massage oils. I can’t quite believe I’m saying this, but the whole thing feels beneath Gronk. It’s got a whiff of “Derek Jeter’s Taco Hole.”
Whatever the value of CBD Medic, it’s both fitting and depressing that Gronk has made pain treatment and management the focus of his post-NFL business career. Pain is the gloomy undercurrent always lurking beneath Gronk’s upbeat vibe. After the Patriots won the title last year, he brushed off his devastating thigh injury, saying, “Probably won’t be able to walk that good tomorrow. But it’s all good. We’re Super Bowl champs.” Six months later, in that August press conference, he told the truth, recalling the agony he felt the night after the game, when he was driven to sobs because of excruciating pain.
In his book, Gronk spends a lot of time talking about his nine surgeries and recoveries. After a back operation during college, he explains, “the simplest of things that I took for granted, like being able to go to the bathroom or brush my teeth, were very difficult.” Years later, in the pros, the injury recurred, and “whatever I did, whether I stood up, sat down, lay down, ran, or did anything else, I couldn’t escape the back pain. The stabbing and shooting feelings were getting worse and worse.”
Gronk had six of those surgeries in the span of two seasons with the Patriots. He writes in It’s Good to Be Gronk that the first time he broke his forearm—it would later become infected, forcing him to walk around for a month with an intravenous bag of antibiotics—he considered the injury “a blessing in disguise.” His back pain had become such torture that he welcomed a forearm fracture as an excuse to sit out for five games. (In the second game after he returned, he broke the forearm again and needed another surgery.)
When I asked Gronk to tell me about his worst days in the NFL, he talked about pain. “Trying to recover,” he said, “maybe from a game that was more physical, you took hits in spots that weren’t protected, you took a big hit. And just being down, not being able to move that well.” Sometimes the days bled into the nights: After his thigh got hammered in his final game, he said, “It was about three weeks I was only sleeping about 30 minutes a night.”
When I asked him if, as a young retiree, he had any longer-term goals for his life—I thought he might talk about philanthropy or coaching kids—he said his main aim was to “heal up from the game of football.” When I asked if he’s concerned that some of the damage would never go away, he acknowledged, “It does weigh on me.”
Though I closed my ears to it back then, Gronk did openly fret about this stuff during his playing days. “If I had one wish to come true,” he said, during the 2016 Q&A in which he also endorsed arm tickling, it would be “to wake up every day and feel fresh and … have no pain.” This was, and is, the price Gronk paid so that Patriots fans like me could enjoy our Sunday afternoons. And we haven’t even talked about CTE yet.
An Abacus public relations rep told me, right before my interview with Gronk, not to mention his many concussions—or the chronic traumatic encephalopathy that could potentially result from them—because Gronk is “sick of talking about it.” I reluctantly capitulated. In a previous interview with CBS News, Gronk revealed that he’s suffered about 20 concussions, including “five blackout ones.” Gronk also told NBC that he’s “aware of” the risk of CTE, and that it’s “why I took the action and got away from the game. I would not lie, I was walking around, my mood swings were totally up and down.” He added that, at times, it felt as if his head was swollen with “liquid,” and that he was doing “brain exercises”— for instance, assembling a 750-piece puzzle—as a form of treatment.
In September, Gronk tweeted that CTE “is fixable. I fixed mine. There are plenty of methods in this world that allow the brain to recover from severe damage.”
It wasn’t clear exactly what kind of “methods” Gronk meant; experts say there’s no cure for CTE. I couldn’t quite tell if Gronk was suggesting that CBD had helped his brain.
When I asked the CEO of Abacus Health Products, Perry Antelman, whether CBD is a possible treatment for CTE or concussions, he wasn’t surprised by the question and seemed willing to entertain the idea. “I’m not a doctor,” he said. “But there’s a lot of great research coming. I hope CBD can help with it, but we don’t know yet.”
Gronk says he became interested in CBD in part because it’s a more natural alternative to opioids. Countless football players have become addicted to opiates, a consequence of their efforts to alleviate, and play through, excruciating pain. Gronk told me he’s no stranger to pain pills, given all his surgeries. “Everyone knows how that works,” he said. “There’s a time and place for them. But it’s about the long run, the side effects.” He said players who’d used marijuana to deal with pain told him it was more effective than opiates. “They say that’s why they smoke it. It’s a lot better for them, and they claim that it heals them a lot better, too.”
Both Gronk and Abacus stress that the topical CBD products Gronk has repped so far are meant for pain relief and are not psychoactive. (Gronk described giving some CBD cream to a friend, who then asked, in a scared whisper, whether it would make him high. “I’m like, ‘No, man,’ ” said Gronk. “Are you kidding me? You think I’m gonna hand you a product that you’re gonna get high as balls off of?”) Later this year, though, Gronk will be launching a personally branded line of CBD “consumables”—stuff that you ingest. And while Abacus says they will be “designed to help people balance their active lifestyle with healthy recovery,” Gronk played up their mood-altering possibilities. “It calms you down,” he said of his forthcoming tincture, which is meant to be droppered under your tongue. “It just relaxes you.”
I asked if it was like having a beer. “I would say more like having a glass of wine,” he said. “You get that calm feeling going.”
I then asked if he thought Bill Belichick would enjoy some CBD drops. “I think he would love ’em,” said Gronk. “I think he needs tons of ’em. I would love to give him the first sample of my product line, you know. Put the tincture in his mouth for him, too. That would be a great picture, me dropping a tincture of oil right in his mouth.” Here Gronk pantomimed forcibly tincturing a noncompliant Belichick.
In our interview, Gronk didn’t strike me as in any way stupid. Just not, let’s say, verbally integrated. He’d get tongue-tied each time he attempted to recite some piece of prepared jargon about his CBD products. He was far more comfortable and animated when he talked about how, despite all the pain, he really loved playing football.
His eyes lit up as he described moments “where your body’s activated, your central nervous system is firing, and the joy of playing the game is just unmatched. Those are the best days. Even if it’s a practice day.” He told me he had a tough time in the period immediately after he retired. “You start thinking the wrong things,” he said. “You start making bad decisions.”
Now, he tells me, things are better. He’s found ways to occupy himself. He still lives in Foxborough, where the Patriots play and train, but he travels around a lot to see his family. “We love to shoot hoops, do cornhole, wherever we are,” he said.
It’s a fine life, cushioned by about $53 million in career salary. Yet my meeting with Gronk left me pitying him a little. Gronk made his money, earned three Super Bowl rings, and got out of the NFL at a relatively young age. He did football about as well as you can. Yet he still faces a lifetime of physical pain and the risk of CTE-induced dementia. Professionally, he’s transitioned from a job as the world’s best tight end to hawking a vaguely louche version of Icy Hot.
I’m not alone—Gronk told me that a lot of people say they feel sorry for him. “I get it so much that I learned how to block it out sometimes,” he said. “Sometimes they’re saying it with empathy, and sometimes they’re saying it disrespectfully. But if I’m having a real conversation with someone, and they say they feel sorry for me that I had to retire so early, I tell them about everything I went through. I did retire kind of young. I could have kept going. But at the same time, it’s good to be out of the game, because you know those hits, they can add up, and you could be feeling them in the future.”
I’m not saying we should cry for Gronk. Many people would happily trade places with him. It’s also worth noting that he had an early out if he wanted it. In his book, Gronk writes about the insurance policy he could have cashed after injuring his back during college. It would have paid him $4 million, tax free. (He did the math: At 4 percent interest, he would’ve made $160,000 a year without touching the principal.) All he needed to do was stop playing. Instead, he rolled the dice, entered the NFL draft, and continued to fuck up his body.
Once in the NFL, he could have retired long before he did and still been a millionaire. “I felt like after my third year in the league, I was very financially stable for the rest of my life,” he told me. But he played another six seasons after that. Risking his health paid off big time, in a financial sense. Football made Gronk extravagantly rich.
And since that bummer of a press conference back in August, Gronk has looked like he’s having fun. Check out, for instance, his sexy dance moves at halftime of a Los Angeles Lakers game. (This stunt was part of a segment he filmed for Game On—an upcoming show on CBS that Gronk will co-host with Venus Williams.) Gronk has been making public appearances with his girlfriend, swimsuit model and former Pats cheerleader Camille Kostek. He flummoxed Steve Harvey on New Year’s Eve. He’s even popped up as a football commentator on Fox. He told me the Fox gig is “part-time” for now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Gronk is groomed to take over Terry Bradshaw’s niche: the lovable if slow-witted lunk on the analyst panel.
This might be as good as it gets. NFL players sell us their bodies, and maybe their lucidity. We mostly lose interest once the bloom of their youth fades. A few manage to rekindle our attention through sheer force of personality. I hope Gronk does that. I’m rooting for him. Bradshaw is the best-case scenario—a happy-go-lucky ex-NFL-er in winter. But he was a quarterback who never took the kind of pounding Gronk did. I’m worried about what Gronk will look and sound like at 40, 50, and beyond.
At the end of my time with him, I asked Gronk if I was the first journalist not to ask him about a possible comeback. He said I was, and he thanked me. (He then pivoted to talking about snacks again, smart enough to realize that me performatively not asking was me asking.) But while he might be sick of answering questions about resuming his football career, Gronk has played the will-he-or-won’t-he game to his own advantage. In November, he teased a “big announcement”—hinting about a potential return to the field—that turned out to be a marketing stunt for a Super Bowl party sponsored by an energy drink.
I watched the Patriots’ putrid tight end performances this season. I watched the team’s playoff loss, in which a pathetic, Gronk-less offense lacked all oomph. I found it hard not to think about what a gigantic difference Gronk would have made, how much he might have helped Tom Brady (a guy who failed to learn from Gronk the value of leaving too early instead of too late). But mainly, I thought about how much it would improve my life as a fan if Gronk returned.
I hope if Gronk genuinely considers unretiring, he comes to the same conclusion I have. I’m just not worth it.
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary, and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.Join Slate Plus