By David Willis
---- — FOXBORO — The comeback was amazing, epic, in fact. The Patriots, seemingly assured a loss, rallied back in stunning fashion to steal one of the most amazing wins in recent memory.
But the atmosphere inside the Patriots’ locker room was noticeably somber following the wild 27-26 win, as the players’ joy was strongly overshadowed by worry and sympathy for the star teammate who had left the stadium long before the comeback, injured All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski.
“My heart is broken for Rob,” said special teams ace Matt Slater. “That young man has been through so much in terms of injuries. To see this hurts. It‘s such a sad situation.”
After hauling in a pass from Tom Brady in the third quarter, Gronkowski suffered a massive hit to the right knee from Browns safety T.J. Ward.
Gronkowski, whose knee seemed to hyperextend, crumpled to the ground in obvious pain and remained there for several minutes before he was carted off the field.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick informed the media following the game that Gronkowski was taken from the stadium to the hospital to be examined.
There was no official report other that than it was an injury to his leg, but reports began to circulate following the game that he may have suffered a torn ACL.
“It is like you are in a bad dream,” said Slater, who could be seen kneeling and praying next to Gronkowski as the tight end lay on the turf. “You wake up and hope it wasn’t really happening.”
Unfortunately, the Patriots’ nightmare seems to become a reality yesterday, as their top receiving threat and most dynamic player lay on the back of a golf cart driven off the field.
“He’s the Gronk,” said fullback James Devlin. “It’s so tough to lose a player like him. I am proud of the way we rallied back in his honor, but you hate to see him have to go through this.”
For the man that so effortlessly runs over opponents like blades of grass, who seems to the unknowing eye to be made of steel, injuries are nothing new.
Gronk, of course, missed five regular season games and both playoff contests a season ago with the broken arm that also cost him the first six games of this season. He also battled injuries in New England’s run to the Super Bowl in 2011-12 and it was back problems that caused him to slip in the draft and remain available for the Patriots in the second round.
“He is such a tremendous talent,” said Slater. “If he could stay healthy, the sky is the limit. Unfortunately he has had these injuries. He has had to deal with these trials and tribulations.”
There is no questioning the Hall of Fame abilities of Gronkowski. His numbers -- 226 catches, 3,255 yards and 42 touchdowns in 50 career games -- are tremendous.
But the pain on his face as he was helped off the ground yesterday forced every Patriots fan to wonder when Gronkowski might return?
“Gronk is a great friend of mine and it hurts to watch him go through this,” said receiver Julian Edelman. “It’s rough. Seeing him go down is sad for me and everyone else.”
One player that seemed deeply bothered by the injury was Gronk’s backup, and the man that helped him to the cart, tight end Matthew Mulligan.
“I consider Gronk a close friend and we have spent a lot of time working out together,” he said. “Heck, our lockers are right next to each other. I feel for him.”
Ward, the player that delivered the hit on Gronk, made it clear there was no malicious intent on the play.
“Gronk’s a big dude,” said Ward, who shared a few kind words with Gronk after the tackle. “He is not small by any means so that makes (tackling him) difficult. I was just trying to tackle a big man and unfortunately he got hurt. Plus, if I hit high I risk being fined (by the league). My intention is never to hurt anyone, that is not my game.”
Patriots players also did not vilify the Browns defensive back.
“It’s a tough situation because I have played against T.J. in the past and he is not a dirty player,” said Slater. “He is a clean player. But these guys are taught that you can’t hit high, so you have to hit low and injuries happen. You can’t blame him, just pray for Rob.”
Now it becomes a waiting game to see the extent of the injury, and what it will take to return.
“He is a strong person, both mentally and physically,’ said Mulligan. “So we feel like he can come back from whatever this is.”