How miserable must it have been to be a veteran playing in New England?

That's all I could think about shortly after learning Rob Gronkowski would join Tom Brady in Tampa Bay via a trade Tuesday afternoon.

It comes to mind because I remember my thoughts in late August of last year. Andrew Luck had just shocked the sports world with his sudden retirement before the age of 30, and days later a slimmed-down, healthy-looking Gronk nearly broke down in tears relating his lost love of the game.

"I want to be clear to my fans. I needed to recover. I was not in a good place. Football was bringing me down. And I didn't like it," Gronkowski says, choking back tears. "And I was losing that joy in life. Like ... the joy. I'm sorry right now but aw, dang. 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 have to fix myself."

Mind you, this was at a press junket for a CBD company. It was hardly Oprah's couch that had Gronk bearing his soul. Listen to the crowd offering awkward laughter as the feared tight end tries to pull himself together.

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The last time we all saw Gronk on the field, I saw him in the locker room. He had just won his third Super Bowl with the Patriots in that snoozer against the Rams in Atlanta. He was celebrating, sure, but he was limping. He seemingly wore more padding on his left arm to play football than Barry Bonds did on his right standing in the batter's box. His back was killing him.

All signs pointed to Gronkowski retiring after the 2018 season and enjoying his 30s with millions in the bank and endless endorsement opportunities.

"And when that time comes down in the future," Gronkowski added at that same CBD junket, "if I have the desire to play football again, if I feel passionate about football again, if I feel like I need to be out there on the field, I will go back to football."

Passionate about football again.

It's no surprise that a former player feels the tug to return. That happens every year with every team, whether that player retires himself or the game retires him.

But clearly the only professional football Rob Gronkowski had known -- the Patriot Way -- had sucked the joy out of him.

Would he have wanted to go elsewhere? We know he didn't, at least not without Brady. Gronkowski nixed a potential trade to Detroit back in 2018, threatening retirement over catching passes from anyone other than Brady. So he stuck it out in New England and won a third world title for his service.

Gronk needed a reset, and 2019 gave him just that. He joined the WWE and threw a Super Bowl party. Now he's back, and it's no coincidence he joins Brady in a place that can be considered the antithesis of BelichickLand.

With a legacy secured and rings in the safe, Brady and Gronk head to a place yearning to build a winning tradition with a laid-back culture. Bruce Arians talks about drinking alcohol more than my buddies and I do in our group chat during quarantine. The choices were limited -- Brady didn't have many takers outside the Pats, Bucs and Chargers, and Gronk was only going where Brady went -- but Gronk's trade may tilt the balance of the NFC South back in the Bucs' favor after the Saints got Emmanuel Sanders.

No, Gronk won't be getting his fifth career 1,000-yard season. I'd be stunned if he does better than his 2018 campaign that saw him grab 47 passes for 682 yards. He'll easily regain the weight in the next few months and continue to be a monster in the seam, but his utility goes beyond being Brady's security blanket.

The Bucs still need help at right tackle and running back. Gronk returns to the league as still the best blocking tight end there is, so that alleviates some immediate pressure at both spots. Consider, too, that his rhythm with Brady will be greater than that of Mike Evans or Chris Godwin. Defenses, God bless them, can shade coverage to Gronk early in the season and take their chances on the outside with those guys.

The year off appears to have been great for Gronk's body and mind. The passion for football had to return before Gronk would return, and clearly it has. It just happened to take place in Tampa and not New England.