Ever since New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski retired at just 29 in March, fans have begged him to return to the NFL.
“I’m walking across the street and they’re like, ‘You’re walking, you could’ve been coming back!’ ” Gronkowski said at a press conference on Wednesday.
But the NFL player was in pain from countless injuries and nine surgeries across his career and said he reached his breaking point after a hit to his quad before New England won the 2019 Super Bowl.
So, he tells PEOPLE, he feels for former Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, who announced his surprise retirement Aug. 24 to criticism from some fans. “It’s taken my joy of this game away,” Luck said, becoming emotional, of his many injuries at a news conference.
“I can relate to Andrew Luck, where he is,” Gronkowski admits to PEOPLE. “I’ve been there, and it’s good to see that he wants to take care of himself. He said he wasn’t really himself anymore, and I can relate to that in many ways.”
“I don’t feel like they really understand what the beatings can truly do to your body,” he adds of critics. “How they can affect your overall life, and how they can take away joy from your life because your brain is just trying to focus on healing a body part because you took such a massive hit.”
As Gronkowski’s pain took a toll on his emotions, it would sometimes even cause mood swings, he says. But Gronkowski says he’s found a solution post-retirement. One day, after he stubbed his toes during a casual game of soccer, his father told him to use his topical CBD cream for the pain. When Gronkowski felt the “immediate relief,” he incorporated it into his pain treatments.
Now, the pro announced that he’s “pain-free,” and partnering with CBD Medic for a forthcoming line of fitness-focused CBD creams and other products.
“I put the cream on, and boom, that’s when I knew,” Gronkowski tells PEOPLE. “That is a home run.”
CBD hasn’t been the only factor in Gronkowski’s improvements, though. He additionally cites staying active through workouts and casual sports, along with eating a plant-based diet — which his “always supportive” girlfriend, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit model Camille Kostek, introduced him to.
“She’s always eaten what we call bunny food, like carrots and stuff, and I always wondered how she always felt so good every single day just waking up,” Gronkowski tells PEOPLE. And, he adds, “She loves the cream too — she actually stubbed her toes before the ESPYs and used the cream for the ESPY week, because she’s in the high heels, and it worked fantastic for her.”
At the conference, Gronkowski added that he wants the NFL to allow players to use CBD, which became legal in the U.S. in its hemp-derived form last year. But when it comes to NFL rules, which have adapted over the past few years for safety, he thinks the league is in a good place.
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“You can’t take away the whole game,” Gronkowski says to PEOPLE. “You know what you’re signing up for. You know that it’s a contact sport. And that’s why fans are so crazy about it, because you can’t see any other sport like that, so that’s what makes it special.”
At the press conference, Gronkowski emphasized he had no plans to return to the Patriots “in the foreseeable future,” although he left the option open if he ever feels “like I need to be out there on the field.” He may have left football, he said, but he still sees a lot ahead for himself.
“I’m not retired from life,” Gronkowski said at the conference. “I’m enjoying it and in a good place.”