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Rob Gronkowski's Season A Source of Pride & Pain

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Every Wildcat fan that has ever belted out a rendition of “Bear Down Arizona” on a Saturday night can take pride in Sunday’s AFC Championship. Rob Gronkowski has an opportunity to play an integral role in the New England Patriots reaching the Super Bowl for a fifth time in a decade, adding to the rapidly growing legacy the tight end has established in just two professional seasons.

But Sunday’s match-up could prove as painful as it is prideful for UA fans. Every one of Gronkowski’s touchdown receptions and ensuing spikes is a reminder of what could have been were it not for an injury that sidelined Gronk throughout the 2009 season.

UA was coming off an 8-5 campaign, capped with a rout of rival Arizona State and Las Vegas Bowl defeat of top 20 ranked BYU. Gronkowski was an Associated Press All-American and top target for Willie Tuitama, having hauled in 10 touchdowns and nearly 700 yards despite playing just nine games. He was to be the offense’s building block with a new quarterback assuming the reins.

That was until he needed back surgery for an injury that 2 ½ years later, is still ambiguous in nature. Such a freak incident seemed like the only way Gronk might be in Tucson four years, but even that wasn’t enough to keep him out of the last uncapped NFL Draft. The somewhat mysterious nature wasn’t enough to deter his stock – New England snagged him No. 42 in 2010 Draft, and he’s been more than worth any perceived gamble.

Had Gronkowski not needed the back surgery, it seems unlikely he would have slipped to the Patriots at 42 because he would have been coming off a season starring for a Rose Bowl team.

Yes, Gronk’s presence on the 2009 roster would have yielded the program’s first Rose Bowl. Each connection with Tom Brady only solidifies my theory as fact.

Alright, so there’s no measure to determine if that is indeed fact, barring Dr. Brown rolling up with a Deloreon to prevent..whatever it was that injured Gronkowski’s back. But consider without him, UA ranked in the top 50 of passing offenses of college football.

Nick Foles began to establish the foundation of the best individual career for a UA quarterback, completing 63.4 percent of his passes with 19 touchdowns, while lacking a consistent No. 1 target.

Sure, Juron Criner stood out with his nine scoring receptions. But Criner was the team’s leader in receiving yards, and failed to match Gronk’s 672 from the season prior. Terrell Turner and Dave Roberts were both good for over 400 yards, but no one was the versatile option Gronkowski provided.

Two losses kept UA from the Rose Bowl for all intents and purposes: Nov. 14 at Cal, and Nov. 21 vs. Oregon. Against Cal, UA mustered just 16 points. Third down proved the Wildcats’ Achilles’ heel that night, with UA converting just three attempts out of 13 opportunities. Gronkowski finished this NFL season tied for No. 16 in third down receptions with 15.

A few conversions with that 6-foot-6 target changes the dynamic under Memorial Stadium’s haunting lights that evening – and possibly prevents one of the uglier moments of the season, Foles’ self-pass penalty.

Gronkowski has made a name for himself as a premiere red zone option, both in the collegiate and professional ranks. Think UA could have used that a week later when, still in the Rose Bowl hunt, Oregon came to town?

The Oregon game is notable for hosting College GameDay and going to two overtimes, as well as the overzealous Zona Zoo rushing the field before the game ended. Jeremiah Masoli and Jeff Maehl became instant villains in UA football lore for their combined efforts in crunch time, but more vexing for the Wildcats that night was red zone efficiency.

UA had seven trips into the Duck red zone. Only four of them yielded points. Gronkowski’s presence on any of those red zone opportunities leads to a completely different outcome.

Perhaps Sunday, Gronkowski will get to be the hero en route to New England’s Bowl UA lacked pursuing its Bowl. Coincidentally, it would be with the same organization that another all-time Wildcat great game excelled. Tedy Bruschi, victim of another great UA what-if (Desert Swarm’s disappearance vs. UCLA in 1993), was a vital cog to Patriot Super Bowl runs in the early 2000s. I still say he was the true MVP of Super Bowl XXXIX, but I digress.

Also coincidentally, the Patriots would use another pro franchise that gave a Wildcat legend his championship moment. Chris McAllister won a Super Bowl with Baltimore, two years after leading UA to a 12-1 finish and Holiday Bowl. Of course, without UCLA’s atrocious defensive effort in the last week vs. Miami that season, the Wildcats go to the Rose Bowl – and worse yet, if UCLA doesn’t erupt for 21 points amid a Zona meltdown in the fourth quarter that same season, UA plays for the first BCS Championship.

I’ll stop before descending down a rabbit hole with no end in sight.

What if, indeed.