If only for an instant, Rob Gronkowski appeared headed for Super Bowl immortality.
For much of Sunday night, the New England Patriots' record-setting tight end had been a non-factor, made all but invisible by a high ankle sprain that kept him out of much of New England's Super Bowl XLVI preparations. A injury that severe can keep an athlete out of action for six weeks or more. Gronkowski tried to play in the biggest game of his life after just two.
But somehow, with the New York Giants clinging to a 21-17 lead in the waning seconds Sunday night at Lucas Oil Stadium, Gronkowski was in the end zone with the ball -- and victory -- seemingly within reach.
With time disappearing from the clock, Tom Brady heaved a 51-yard last-second try into the end zone on the Patriots' last gasp at avenging a Super Bowl loss to the Giants four years ago. The ball was tipped and Gronkowski appeared out of nowhere. It was a minor miracle that Gronkowski was able to chug half the length of the field just to be in the play.
Gronk, as he's known to fans, lunged toward the batted ball as it drifted toward the ground.
But it escaped his enormous reach.
"We almost had it," says Gronkowski, who was limited to only two catches for 26 yards in Sunday night's loss. "But almost isn't enough."
Media on Twitter burst with speculation, from Yahoo! Sports' Pat Forde to ESPN's Michael Wilbon to NBC's Luke Russert, all wondering if a healthy Gronkowski would have made the play.
But of course that leads to other questions: Would Gronkowski have been targeted with the pass Wes Welker dropped in the fourth quarter? Would he have given Brady an outlet on the first-quarter safety that cost the Patriots two huge points? What if?
Replays of the desperation last-second heave showed Gronkowski had to plant and lunge off that bad ankle. He nearly caught the ball anyway.
"I kind of saw it at the last second and it was close," says Gronkowski, who set NFL records with 1,327 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns.
As soon as the pass hit the turf, the Giants' sideline erupted in elation. Brady sulked off the field, having lost his second straight Super Bowl, again to the Giants, again with his quarterback counterpart walking away with the game's MVP award.
For Eli Manning, who earlier in the playoffs had connected on an improbable Hail Mary against the Packers, Brady's effort was almost too much to watch.
"It was tough," Manning says. "I knew there wasn't much time and with New England they're never out of it. All of sudden they throw one in the end zone and it's up there and it's nerve-wracking.
"We've completed a Hail Mary and I was hoping another one wasn't going to be completed tonight."
Gronkowski, a cult hero in New England, is now left to wonder along with Patriots fans what might have been.
"But that doesn't matter," he says. "I didn't get it."
Jeff Arnold can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @jeff_arnold24.
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