Gronk: comeback like Cunningham?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll already know that Gronk is back. Very few things can distract NFL fans during Draft Week. However, news broke just 48 hours before Draft Day of the return of Rob Gronkowski, arguably the best tight end to ever play the game.

Gronkowski has won 3 Superbowls and been selected for 5 Pro Bowls. He is a 4 time 1st Team All-Pro, and was named NFL Comeback Player of the Year in 2014 after suffering four surgeries to his arm, knee and back the year before. He was named as a starter in the NFL’s 100 year anniversary All Time Team.

It’s time to get excited. One the game’s greats is back. And where better to go than the new home of his football soulmate, Tampa Brady.

Return of the Greatest 

Many had already predicted Gronk’s return – after all, he was just 29 when he retired. Sure, he’d had enough injuries to last a lifetime prior to stepping away from the game. At some point, the itch to play again would get to him. It didn’t take long. Like a child taking their favourite toy everywhere they go, Tom Brady has reunited with his favourite target in Florida.

It seems as though everyone is a winner here. Tom Brady has his comfort blanket. The Patriots received a 4th Round pick for a player that wasn’t even on their roster last year. Buccaneers fans have the perfect pairing to join their exciting wide receiver group.


Despite Gronk’s glittering career, there are reasons for Tampa fans to manage their expectations. For those of you that didn’t know, here is a list of Gronkowski’s significant career injuries to date:

In his junior year of college at the University of Arizona, he underwent his first back surgery. His rookie year of 2012 saw Gronk suffer a broken forearm that was reinjured, requiring two surgeries. 2013 saw another two surgeries on his forearm to remove an infection. A second back surgery and two torn ligaments in his right knee capped off a miserable year in the NFL for the New England Patriot.

That litany’s of injuries is enough for most to consider retirement. Injury is part and parcel of the game, but such an array of surgery could end any career. In 2016, he suffered a pulmonary contusion (bruised ribs) and a third back surgery to repair a “herniated disk”.Concussion has also been an issue in his career, notably in the 2018 AFC Championship Game.

Gronkowski’s injury list is almost as long as his career honours. They didn’t just have a significant effect on his physical health, but his mental well-being too. After initially retiring in 2019, he claimed that “desire-wise, it’s not there”. He’d lost his love for the game. Rumours of his retirement in 2018 had proven premature. His performances were below his usual standards, though. In his last year in the NFL, he fumbled the ball for the first time in 6 years. His on-field numbers dipped too. He received the ball just 47 times, scoring a tied career-low 3 touchdowns.

The numbers seem to justify his decision to leave the game and pursue a career in media. However, taking up a position in the booth is a sure-fire way to get the itch to play again. The same happened with Jason Witten, who returned to the Dallas Cowboys in 2019 after a year out working for ESPN.

Witten’s footsteps 

Witten is a similarly loved, albeit less decorated, NFL tight end. The 11-time Pro Bowler returned to the game aged 36 last season. Dallas needed a tight end, and Witten answered the call. His 2019 stats of 529 receiving yards and 4 touchdowns aren’t much to get excited about, but they are impressive for a guy his age. Gronk will no doubt be hoping for a more explosive return to the sport.

The current WWE 24/7 Champion will be hoping for a return in the style of former Eagles and Vikings quarterback Randall Cunningham. Like Gronk, he had suffered a chequered injury past. He tore his ACL in 1991, and was sacked 60 times the following year. In his final year in Philly, he was sacked another 43 times. It seemed as though the game had taken its toll on Cunningham.

The greatest comeback 

Randall Cunningham retired from the game in 1995 after 11 seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles. He was working as a labourer when he received a call from Minnesota Vikings coach Dennis Green nearly two years later. After much persuasion, Green persuaded Cunningham to return to the sport. He had an immediate impact in 1997, taking the team to the Divisional Round of the play-offs. For him and for the Vikings, the best was still to come.

In 1998, Cunningham shocked the league, having his best season of his career. He was named a 1st Team All-Pro ten years after his first nomination in 1988. His Vikings team went 15-1, with Cunningham throwing 34 touchdown passes for 3704 yards. Minnesota set a then-NFL record for 556 points in the season. He led the league in passer rating (106). This is a story destined for Hollywood – the downtrodden retired athlete returning to greatness.

Rob Gronkowski is one of the greats of the game, of that there is little doubt. If he judges his physical and mental health to be ready to sustain the punishments of the NFL, the game is better for it. The only way to scratch the itch is to get the pads on again. For Gronk, the Buccaneers, and the NFL, let’s hope he has a comeback like Cunningham.

Tom Scott @downthemannyrd

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