Rob Gronkowski was a 16-pound Ebonite. He barreled down the lane, veered into the pocket and exploded into the pins. That’s how he played football. Head down, pads low, no fear.
After some time, it all took a toll on a 6-foot-6, 285-pound frame you’d imagine representing the blueprint for tight ends. It became harder for him to function as the injuries to his back, knees and arms began piling up, chipping away, robbing him of the athleticism that enabled him to redefine how his position could be played. He’s missed 29 games in his career.
Still, it was amazing how quickly a man his size could move, although the 2018 season began to reveal the accumulated toll of his wounds. Football was still fun, but it was also was painful.
That’s what led to speculation that Gronk, a four-time first-team All-Pro, might retire this offseason after just nine years with the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. It became a quality of life issue for a guy who is just 29 years old.
And so no one was surprised on Sunday when he called Patriots owner Robert Kraft to tell him he was retiring. The phone call was accompanied by a long Instagram message in which he expressed his thanks and gratitude.
“The season is a grind. It’s up and down. I’m not going to lie and sit here and say every week is the best. Not at all. You go up. You go down. You can take some serious hits,” said Gronkowski. “Try to imagine getting hit all the time and trying to be where you want to be every day in life. It’s tough. It’s difficult. To take hits to the thigh, to take hits to your head, abusing your body, isn’t what your brain wants. When your body is abused, it can bring down your mood. You have to be able to deal with that, too, throughout the season. You have to be able to deal with that going into games.”
While there is always the possibility he could reconsider someday – the Patriots have his phone number – this likely represents the end of an illustrious career that should earn him first-ballot Hall of Fame induction. In that sense, he will always be on the same team with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.
“Rob’s impact on our team and organization was felt in many ways,” Belichick said in his statement. “In the ultimate team sport, Rob was a great, great teammate. His production spoke for itself, but his daily attitude, unmistakably positive energy wherever he went and toward whoever he touched will never be forgotten. Rob will leave an indelible mark on the Patriots organization and the game as among the best, most complete players at his position to ever play.”
Gronkowski was an integral part of the Patriots dynasty. While Belichick shuffled players in and out of the organization, he and Brady remained tethered, reliant on each other, always in sync, invariably successful.
In his 115 regular-season games, he caught 521 passes for 7,861 yards. He played in 16 playoff games, adding another 81 receptions for 1,163 yards and 12 touchdowns. He had 10 or more touchdown receptions in five seasons, the most by a tight end in NFL history.
Only Jerry Rice (22) has more postseason TD receptions, each of which followed with his resounding spike. Gronkowski had four career 100-yard receiving games in the playoffs, tying him with Keith Jackson and Vernon Davis, who is still active, for the most by a tight end.
In 2011, he set NFL single-season records for touchdowns (18) and receiving yards (1,327). He is the only tight end in NFL history with three seasons of 1,000 yards receiving and more than 10 touchdowns. In 2017, he surpassed 1,000 yards again, tying Jason Whitten and Tony Gonzalez for the most by a tight end in history. And no Patriots player has ever scored more TDs (80).
“In the nine years that I have known Rob Gronkowski, I have never known him to have a bad day,” Kraft said in a statement. “He always has a youthful exuberance about him and is a joy to be around. As a player, he earned the respect of his coaches and teammates for his hard work, preparation, selfless attitude and the sheer dominance of his game. ‘Gronk’ quickly became a fan favorite and the most dominant player at his position for nearly a decade. I look forward to honoring him in the near future as both a Patriots and Pro Football Hall of Famer. ”
Gronkowski does not need the money. He’s said many times he’s disciplined himself to live off just the cash he’s made from product endorsements, the most famous, especially in New England, his work for Dunkin’ Donuts. He will be fine, no worries. But let’s not forget Tide Pods.
“I’m really satisfied with how my whole career has been. Super satisfied. There’s ups and downs, but the thing is always coming back,” he said. “There’s so many examples of great players here before me, when I was young, to look up to and see how they bounce back when something adverse comes their way.”
Gronkowski was not just a generational star, he had a personality that shone just as brightly. To some, ‘Gronk’ became a personal endeavor. It seemed like he was always smiling, joking around and being a goofball. He was the guy pumping the keg for a last drop, chatting up the pretty girls. And it was that way from the start when the Patriots made him the 42nd overall pick of the 2010 draft out of Arizona.
“It all started at 20 years old on stage at the NFL draft when my dream came true, and now here I am about to turn 30 in a few months with a decision I feel is the biggest of my life so far,” Gronkowski wrote. “I am so grateful for the opportunity that Mr. Kraft and Coach Belichick gave to me when drafting my silliness in 2010. My life experiences over the last 9 years have been amazing both on and off the field. The people I have meet, the relationships I have built, the championships I have been a part of, I just want to thank the whole Patriots organization for every opportunity I have been giving and learning the great values of life that I can apply to mine.”