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December 10. 2013 12:00AM

Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Another battle looms for Gronk

As Rob Gronkowski lay near the 32-yard-line, in obvious pain after a diving tackle from the Browns' T.J. Ward tore both the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his right knee, the thoughts of Patriots safety Devin McCourty weren't on how crippling it would be for New England to lose its superstar tight end.

They were simply about the tight end himself.

"Of course as a team we want him to play," McCourty said later Sunday, after the Pats rallied for a 27-26 comeback win, "but the first thing I thought (about) was everything he went through to get back out here, and how hard he worked.

"As a team we'll do what we have to do — but as a teammate, as a friend, as a player, you just hate to see a guy that's battled back through his arm and his back and been very productive for us this year, it stinks to see him go out."

Unfortunately it's becoming all-too-familiar a stench for the Patriots with this particular player. Near the end of the 2011 season Gronkowski went down with a severe ankle injury. In the 2012 campaign he broke his forearm. Twice. Last offseason he had back surgery to heal a herniated disk. And now he needs to have his knee put back together with a process that figures to sideline him for about a year.

So already it has sent the Patriots into a Super Bowl and an AFC championship game with Tom Brady's best weapon either seriously limited or absent altogether, and Sunday's injury would seem a significant blow to New England's hopes of getting into the same positions this postseason.

But the saddest part of this latest setback isn't the fact it could potentially waste another opportunity for the Patriots in these precious seasons at the back end of Brady's prime, or that a season that had begun to show its promise might ultimately be doomed to the speculative disappointment of what might've been.

The saddest part is that with each injury we're getting closer to wondering that same thing about Gronkowski's career.

By his 23rd birthday, he was on a Hall-of-Fame track. He'd already set the NFL's single-season records for receiving yards and touchdowns by a tight end, he'd reached 20 touchdowns five games quicker than anyone who ever played the position. By the time he turned 24 he already had three 10-score seasons to his credit, tied for the most in Patriots' history at any position, and another league record among tight ends.

But when he turns 25 next May, his future as an elite football player will be as uncertain as it has ever been. Dating to his final year at the University of Arizona, by the time he gets back on the field — probably sometime next November or December — injuries will have cost him a significant segment of four of his past six seasons. And given that all of his ailments have been the result of his style of play, it seems inevitable that there will be more time lost, unless he changes from the contact-initiating ways that make him as good as he is. Either way in that scenario, it's hard to envision him playing up to his potential.

And what seemed to pain his teammates Sunday was the idea that a player who so wants to do great things, and who has worked so hard this season to give himself that opportunity, could have it all taken away so quickly. Outside his locker room, Gronkowski has a reputation as something of a meathead, and given the big kid he tends to be away from the field, that's probably warranted.

But within the walls of Gillette Stadium his work ethic, his attitude and his commitment are as revered as his talent. They saw closer than anyone the efforts he made to come back from the five surgeries he's endured in the past year. And that's why Sunday crushed them on a level more personal than strategically pragmatic.

"My heart is broken for Rob," said special teams captain Matthew Slater. "Having to see him go through that, and seeing him in pain, and realizing what Rob has been through in his young career, it's heartbreaking. It really is.

"He means so much to this football team — not only what he does on the field, but in the locker room, his presence; he brings a child-like joy to the locker room. You see him out there on the field in pain, it's just a tough pill to swallow."

It was "catastrophic," in the words of Matthew Mulligan, the tight end whose workload figures to increase in Gronkowski's stead — although Brady pointed out that as bad as he feels for his teammate, "No one feels sorry for the Patriots," so the team has to adapt and try to overcome.

That won't be easy, as New England learned while Gronkowski sat the first six games of this season, but they were also missing Shane Vereen for five of those contests, so he should help. So should a healthier Danny Amendola, and two months more experience for the team's young group of outside receivers.

Having already lost three All-Pros to injury this season, it remains to be seen whether Gronkowski is the loss that pushes them over the edge, or if the Patriots are able to survive another slug to the gut. Given the parity around the AFC in particular, the latter isn't out of the question.

But in the third quarter Sunday, that wasn't the top concern of many Pats players. Their teammate was — and what comes next now that another hurdle has been placed between him and his potential.

"My heart and my prayers are with him," Vereen said. "It's tough to see not just a teammate, but a good friend, go through the things that he has gone through. He wants to be out here just as much, if not more, than anybody else. He truly loves the game of football and to see him take a shot and go down, it kind of kills us a little bit. But we know he'll be back. He's a fighter."

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Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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