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Phoenix — In the moment, a mixture of competitive fire and playfulness between colleagues nearly resulted in disaster. In hindsight, Detroit Lions coach Matt Patricia can laugh about the time he almost killed All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski.

It was a Friday practice in New England and the team was running a standard seven-on-seven drill near the goal line. Patricia, then the team's defensive coordinator, was standing in the middle of the action, behind the garbage cans that simulated the offensive line. 

Without the threat of a pass rush, the offense carries a clear advantage in the drill. And because Patricia doesn't like losing anything, whether he's at a disadvantage or not, he thought he'd inject himself into a snap to see if he could slow Gronkowski down. 

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"Being a defensive coach, I'm trying to make it as difficult as possible, so Rob is running a crossing route behind me, and I knew he was, so I took the garbage can and just swung it backwards and I caught him right in between the legs and he goes down hard," Patricia said. 

Gronkowsi was fine, but he didn't let on right away, causing Patricia to panic, thinking he'd accidentally injured one of the team's star players two days before a game. 

"He's laying on the ground and he's not getting back up and this is Friday before a game, I'm like, 'This is it. I'm done. Gronk's not getting back up,'" Patricia said. "He's playing it off. He was fine. But I was like, 'Get up, right now, before I get fired. What are you doing?' "

A lock for the Hall of Fame, and arguably the most dominant tight end to ever play in the NFL, Gronkowski retired recently after nine seasons. During his prolific career, he averaged 58 receptions for 873 yards and nine touchdowns. A four-time All-Pro, he was selected to the Pro Bowl five times and won three Super Bowl rings. 

"He's an unbelievable guy," Patricia said. "Great player, better person. Have some great memories with him from being on the same side. I was just telling someone the other day, I used to love after practices in training camp. My kids would go running on the field, and he had to throw one of my kids on his back to do extra push-ups, to get the extra edge. I guess he needed another 45 or 50 pounds to do some push-ups, and he had that playfulness about him that was sincere.

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Patricia also isn't ruling out a return to football for the recent retiree.

"Whatever career he decides to go into, he’s going to be successful,"Patricia said. "And I still don’t rule out the possibility of having to see him on Sundays either."

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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