It’s funny, moments like these are ones that you’re never really ready for.
With news floating out there that Gronkowski might have been returning in 2019, the idea that the Patriots would be without him this season seemed hard to fathom.
After all, his final reception of the year ended up being one of the most crucial of the game during the Patriots Super Bowl win over the Rams. With the score knotted at 3-3 in the fourth qaurter and New England driving, Gronkowski caught a 29-yard pass on a 2nd-and-3 from the Rams’ 31-yard line, hauling in a diving reception at the Los Angeles’ 2, just short of the goal line. One play later, rookie running back Sony Michel took the ball in for the touchdown. Putting the Patriots up 10-3 in a lead they wouldn’t relinquish as they won their sixth Super Bowl Championship.
Following the win, Gronkowski was all smiles and it seemed like the euphoria around this victory might have been enough to bring him back for one more run.
On Sunday night, he put the chances of that to rest after announcing his retirement on Instagram.
For any fan who has watched Gronkowski over the course of his career, you couldn’t have asked for a better player. He made an immediate impact from the time he was drafted in 2010 and his larger-than-life persona was apparent both off the field and on it, with the happy-go-lucky tight end always smiling in front of the camera while quietly working hard behind the scenes.
Both Bill Belichick and his teammates have always talked about his incredible football I.Q., along with the effort he put in day in and day out on the practice field. But what really made Gronkowski unique was how much of a complete player he was. Not only was he a dangerous threat in the passing game, he was a dominant force as a blocker and he seemingly took just as much enjoyment making a key block as he did in spiking the football after scoring touchdowns.
That’s rare in this day and age. Most players tend to focus more on their numbers and less on doing the little things, but Gronkowski was a complete player and took pride in doing all of it.
One of the biggest questions now will be where he’ll end up in his place in NFL history, with many wondering if he’ll someday end up in Canton. He leaves the game with the NFL record in receptions (81), receiving yards (1,163) and receiving touchdowns (12) by a tight end in playoff history. He’s also scored more touchdowns (79) than any other player since 2010, which given that he had several injury-shortened season over that span, is astounding.
The injuries are likely what played a role in the veteran announcing his retirement. He’s had knee injuries, several back surgeries, ankle injuries, his forearm injury, to name a few. Each time he went down, fans penciled him in for the following season likely not realizing the tremendous amount of rehabilitation and pain that went along with making it back to the football field.
The most memorable example of that was when he took a significant hit against the Broncos in Denver in 2015, with the tight end screaming and writhing around on the ground after he went down. What was tough about that moment is the reaction likely stemmed from the knowledge of having been through it in the past, with the obvious fear of his season ending and another offseason of rehab clearly on his mind during the time from when he hit the turf, to when the cart finally took him off the field.
Gronk’s injury scare in 2015 was a reminder of how tough it was on him.
Fortunately, it was just a scare and he avoided disaster. But it was a reminder that he’s only human and the frustration fans voiced at times about his injury history was nothing compared to what he endured personally each time he dealt with one.
Seeing him struggle this past season was a shocking reminder that all of those big hits he sustained over the years had seemingly finally taken their toll. He caught just 47 passes for 682-yards during the regular season, while still averaging 14.5 yards per reception. Of those 47 passes, 34 went for first downs and moved the chains.
In the playoffs, he was big. He was third on the team in receptions with 13 catches for 191-yards, including 4 receptions for – how fitting – 69-yards. The best players step up in key moments and even as hampered as he was, the fact he was able to come through when it mattered most is really a testament of just how good he really was.
Gronkowski’s final reception was a memorable one.
However, he wasn’t just a terrific player, he’s also a terrific person. Behind the scenes, he was known to spend a lot of time at children’s hospitals and other charities, giving up a lot of time to help put smiles on the faces of each person he spent time with. He’s taken his fair share of criticism over the years when it came to his fun-loving ways (his party bus was a target of that), but he was never involved in any off-the-field incidents and never garnered any negative attention.
He’s been pretty care free, with fans even seeing him pounding beers during championship parades. Some took it too far, even believing it was O.K. to treat him like an animal while firing cans at him during the most recent championship parade, causing him to suffer a pretty good cut on his eye. As usual, he took it in stride, despite the fact there were some of his teammates who seemingly took it harder than he did.
For Gronkowski, he goes out the way a player can only hope. He leaves the game with his final moments seeing him raise the Lombardi Trophy, knowing that he made the key play that helped his team get there. He leaves with the love and adoration of every player in the locker room and countless others who played with him and even the respect and appreciation from many more around the league. Opposing players might dislike the Patriots, but very few seemed to have anything negative to say about the veteran tight end.
But the biggest takeaway from this news is the fact it closes the door on an era of a player we’ll likely never see again, which will probably take a little while to sink in. Players like Gronkowski are rare and it’s even more surprising for a player of his caliber to have made it through his entire career with one football team. Fortunately, Patriots fans were able to see end enjoy every moment of his incredible career and as hard as it will be not to see #87 out there next season, every one of them should be thankful for the impact he had during this run.
While everything eventually comes to an end, it’s safe to say there won’t ever be another Rob Gronkowski. Whatever he decides to do next should be fun to watch, whether it be acting, professional wrestling, or whatever lies ahead as he walks away from the game.
But whatever he does next, it won’t be anywhere near as much fun as it was seeing him on the field. One thing you can likely bet is he’ll hit it just as hard as he has everything else, so here’s hoping he has a blast in retirement. He’s definitely earned it.