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Emotional Rob Gronkowski Provides Reminder Of Harsh Realities Of Football

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) -- Rob Gronkowski is many things. He is not an actor. (One does not need to view his work in "You Can't Have It" to know that.)

So when the 30-year-old retired tight end stood on stage on Tuesday morning and struggled to fend off tears, there's no doubt that it was a genuine moment.

"I needed to recover. I was not in a good place. Football was bringing me down. And I didn't like it. And I was losing that joy in life. Like, the joy. I'm sorry right now, but, aw, dang, let me ..." Gronkowski said, fighting through tears. "But … I really was. And I was fighting through it. And I knew what I signed up for and I knew what I was fighting through, and I knew I just had to fix myself."

Playing and thriving in the ultimate team sport, for the ultimate team in that sport, Gronkowski explained his personal decision to retire as uncharacteristically selfish.

"I needed to walk away, because I needed to do what was best for myself at that moment," he said. "I truly needed to be selfish in my life for once and walk away."

Yes, Gronkowski was there to sell CBD products, his latest business venture in which he apparently believes wholeheartedly. But the former Patriot clearly wanted to let the world and his fans know exactly what forced him out of the game that he loved.

To help illustrate that point, Gronkowski discussed his and the Patriots' Super Bowl victory from February. It should have been a joyous occasion. For Gronkowski, who made the play of the game to set up the winning touchdown, it was a miserable experience.

"In the Super Bowl, a couple of minutes into the second quarter, I caught a pass on the left side, cut over, and the linebacker took me right out, right here in my quad. I flipped in the air, and I knew my quad was done. But, I knew it right there and then, I was like, 'Last game. Super Bowl game. Just give it all you have.'

Rob Gronkowski
Rob Gronkowski takes a hit from Cory Littleton and Lamarcus Joyner during Super Bowl LIII . (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

"Literally, my leg was gigantic. It was insane. The trainer was like, 'I don't even know how you played with that in the second quarter.' I don't even know how I made that catch [in the fourth quarter]. I was just like ... literally, we had two plays. The one play before, I ran the same route. I ran up the seam, and Josh [McDaniels] recalled that play because I know he saw me kind of open. ... So he recalled that play, and I was like, I know why he recalled that play. Literally, I'm like, I was just in my mind, like f*** it, you just gotta go to the next level. It's the Super Bowl. You gotta go full speed. You gotta do it. I made that catch, that play, while literally my quad was like this big. I couldn't even move, couldn't even walk, couldn't even bend it any farther than this. Don't even know how I ran. I just have that mentality.

"So, you know, the game went on and everything, and I got done with the game, and I could barely walk. I'm at the after-party, I go to the after-party like this [limping], I sit down, and I'm just chilling all day, like the rest of the night, until 3 a.m.

"I tried to go to bed, I slept for five minutes that night. I couldn't even think. I was in tears, in my bed, after a Super Bowl victory. It didn't make that much sense to me.

"And then, for four weeks, I couldn't even sleep for more than 20 minutes a night after a Super Bowl win. And I was like, damn. This sucks. It didn't feel good. It was one of the biggest, deepest thigh bruises I ever got. Like, I missed a few games [in the past], but during the game I was like, 'Ah, it's whatever, it'll be a two-week injury.' No, this one was deep. I had internal bleeding, I took out 200 milliliters of blood four weeks later. And then another week later, even more started flowing, and I took out 500 milliliters of blood, and then I took out 300 more milliliters of blood from my quad. So it's a total of a thousand milliliters I took out of my quad over the four-week period after the Super Bowl. A thousand milliliters out of a quad. I'm telling you ... it's not normal. It was like, record-breaking at the hospital. They were like, 'Yo!' I was like, 'You know I like to break records.'

"Which I do. I think I broke records on and off the field non-stop, and with injuries and everything. So that's just what I do."

The jokes at the end were typical of Gronkowski, but the honesty and emotion of discussing that deep, lasting pain is something that football players almost aren't allowed to ever share. Part of Gronkowski's mission on Tuesday was to break down that barrier.

Gronkowski's announcement, of course, came just days after Andrew Luck shocked the football world by retiring at the age of 29 over the weekend. Similar to Gronkowski, Luck's NFL career was marred with a seemingly perpetual cycle of injuries, surgeries and rehabilitation. This being America in the 21st century, where everyone and anyone is given a microphone with a limitless potential audience, Luck obviously received a fair amount of backlash for the personal decision he made to attempt to restore and preserve his own physical health.

It's unclear, exactly, whether those bashing Luck represented the majority or a vocal minority, but Luck's openness and honesty -- like Gronkowski's -- was nevertheless a welcome step in what should create a better understanding of the pain and punishment NFL players experience on a daily basis.

That movement was carried on by a number of players, but former Patriots/Chargers/Cardinals offensive lineman Rich Ohrnberger pushed that conversation to a different level when he shared his own personal story of retirement from the game he loved.

It's not a short story, per se, but Ohrnberger's details about being pushed into a bathtub by his pregnant wife so that he could warm his body to the point where he was capable of walking? It painted a pretty dire picture of how much personal physical sacrifice players are willing to make in order to continue living their dreams.

Plenty stands out from that tale, but perhaps nothing more than this one line:

"It's surreal to look back and review this... it's hideously comical how much of myself I was willing to give, but the alternative felt like failure."

That is, ultimately, the challenge that football players face on a daily basis. Playing Pop Warner football requires immense toughness. Same for high school football, same for college football. Those who are talented enough and tough enough to continue playing as professionals often don't know any other way of life, having played the unforgiving sport since their youth.

Yes, they are compensated more than the average citizen. Yes, some players end up getting grossly overpaid. But in these three distinct cases -- No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck, arguably greatest tight end ever Rob Gronkowski, journeyman interior lineman Rich Ohrnberger -- the same crossroads popped up just the same.

Some players choose to ignore that unrelenting lifestyle as long as humanly possible. Often, doing so limits their enjoyment of post-retirement life, which begins for almost every football player by age 35, if not much sooner. While the allure of making millions of dollars and the pressure to not disappoint family and coaches can be intoxicating, the effort and intelligence to weigh the final 30-60 years of life over one or two more years of playing football can objectively look like a rather simple equation.

Nobody -- not even the best players of all time -- exits this game unscathed. How each individual chooses to navigate that reality is ultimately up to them. Conversations like the ones taking place this week should work to at the very least signal-boost an awareness of just how grueling and painful the sport is guaranteed to be for everyone who chooses it as a profession.

"I'm not retired from life. I want the joy in life again. I want the passion in life again," Gronkowski asserted Tuesday. "That's where I'm at in life. I'm enjoying it, and it's a good place."

Rob Gronkowski
Rob Gronkowski (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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