It hasn’t even been a week since Patriots tight end and sure-fire Hall of Famer Rob Gronkowski announced his retirement. It was an announcement that reverberated through the sports world, with athletes, celebrities and coaches sharing Gronk stories and memories.
He made his mark on the league with his kid-like laugh and demeanor, Hulk-like tossing of defenders and lethal spikes.
Gronk amassed 7,861 yards and 79 receiving touchdowns in his nine seasons in the NFL, and added much more to the mantle in accolades. He was All-Pro four times and named to five Pro Bowls. Add in three Super Bowls and you have a stellar career, not to mention the fact that he led the league in receiving touchdowns with 17 in his lone fully healthy season.
But Gronk amassed more than just yards and touchdowns and Super Bowls. He captivated fanbases, like the Patriots, but also transcended New England fandom. People hate the Patriots, but no matter where you went and told people who your team was, they could all agree on one thing “Man, I love Gronk”. Or two things: “Fuck the Pats” and “I love Gronk.”
And, maybe even more than his quarterback Tom Brady, Gronk transcended football. Athletes from other sports, actors and every other profession in the public light you can think of both adored and were awed by Gronk’s physical feats on the football field. He turned the uninterested into believers.
He captivated audiences on the field and off of it, becoming someone you needed just one name to describe. There’s Beyonce, Oprah and Gronk. The nomenclature is so widespread that it made his entire family famous. Without him there is no Gronk Nation. Yes, his family is a brand. They have appeared multiple times on “Shark Tank” pitching largely unnecessary and questionably efficient products.
Gronk is the only player who could have his own party cruise and surprise literally no one. Yeah, if one person was to be the physical embodiment of a party cruise ship, it would be Gronk. Between the Shark Tank appearances, party cruise and an erotic novel devoted to him, “A Gronking to Remember”, Gronk’s antics and experiences were much like Forrest Gump. It was genuinely too hard to describe to someone who didn’t live in his era and time period that it ever existed. It never made sense that anyone with this much talent could have this much fun.
This is why people have always connected with Gronk on such a deeper level than any athlete. So many people looked at Gronk, not as a professional athlete, but as someone who was living out their dreams. “That’s exactly what I’d be doing if I was in the league!” said unmotivated former high school legends everywhere.
Gronk temporarily reversed the 24-hour, TMZ news cycle trend, the one that reduced high-profile athletes to live decidedly low-profile lives, generally unseen and unheard from for the entirety of the off-season. Gronk never allowed that fear to fester or prevent him from going out and getting loose, and his play on the field backed it up. Authentic and genuine, if he wasn’t working out, he was going out. Gronk never felt the need to justify what he was doing, once quoted as saying something along the lines of “I can only work out for so long in a day. I get bored at home, so I want to do something fun and go out when I can.”
Seemingly un-hate-able, Gronk was a mythical figure that somehow existed before our very eyes. Every Patriots game with him on the field felt like a feast that I didn’t deserve. As injuries started to pile up, each Gronk spike came with a warning label: This could be the last. But it never was, largely because Gronk was so unstoppable and so dominant that it didn’t seem to matter what percentage he was at; he was simply a man among boys. And as long as this man wanted to play, some team would have him.
Much like the off-seasons that passed with incessant chatter about Brady’s retirement only for him to come back and (for the most part) show no signs of slowing down, Gronk delivered the same consistency. No matter how many injuries he sustained, he put together more and more mind-numbing performances. The 100-yard games and two-to-three touchdown games felt like they were etched in stone.
But Gronk was always going to be a shooting star and shooting stars don’t last forever. Gronk’s size made him impossible to miss, and although he often dragged three defenders to the ground with him, the joke was on him. He was the one being tackled by three defenders, suffering head and body blows on catches up the seam and occasionally taking a shot to the knee.
He was an impossible downfield target to cover, but plays in his direction took longer to develop. Anything over the top made him a target, especially in his later years, as he was often taking a big hit before he could build up much momentum.
Double-covered much of his career, and a dominant run-blocker known to “kick people out the club”, Gronk was clutch as ever. A virtual “cheat code” he was always open, regardless of who was on him. And he bailed out Brady whenever he needed it, especially in the playoffs.
I will never forget the 2015 AFC championship game against the Broncos, a game in which the Patriots had no business being in. They were dominated by the Broncos defensive pressure all game long and Brady was hurried and harassed regularly. Cut to the final drive on 4th-and-10 and who does Brady go to? A double-covered Gronk. First and goal. Oops, now it’s 4th-and-goal. Gronk double-covered. Touchdown.
It was drives like these that proved how dominant Gronk was. Everyone knew exactly where the ball was going on the field, in press boxes and in living rooms across the country. But knowledge can’t break up the pass and tackle.
Another equally mind-boggling drive was a game-winning drive against the Steelers in which Gronk had two straight catches on consecutive plays to seal a win and shut up a hostile crowd on the road. There were too many of these drives and too many of these wins. Too many clutch catches and broken tackles, too many celebrations.
As fans, we never deserved any of this and we don’t deserve it again.
It was a Blockbuster movie that wouldn’t end, a wildly popular show that just wouldn’t get cancelled.
And now that it has you can’t “smile that’s it’s over and be happy that it happened”.
You just can’t believe it ever happened to begin with, and that you got to go along for the ride.