Good for Rob Gronkowski, a player so talented, so essential to the all-for-one Patriots dynasty that he was able to create a brand for himself and a meaningful life to walk away to.
As expected, he will retire a movie star, already eyeing a future in wrestling rings and big-budget action flicks. He could be The Rock or Dolph Lundgren. He could be Arnold Schwarzenegger in a backwards hat and lacrosse pinnie. That’s the way most of us will remember him anyway. A tight end, yes, but also someone who oozed personality; someone who could make even the most conscientious objector to the light-beer-chugging Massachusetts bro culture flash a smile.
Imagine watching a movie with kids or grandkids and them only recognizing Gronkowski as the dude lighting up bad-guy aliens on the big screen. That may be the only major disappointment in Sunday’s announcement—that Gronkowski was so well-liked that we may one day forget how unique of a football talent he really was.
Even at the end, when they said his body was so cracked and broken from years of back surgeries, ankle surgeries, arm surgeries and knee surgeries, he was still a force. A ho-hum, three-catch, 53-yard game in late November never really tells the story of a player who could clear out an entire section of the field with a lumbering deep route, or bulldoze over a ball-hawking linebacker to earn his running back a few extra yards.
During the best of times, Gronkowski was such a matchup nightmare that he required his own special defense. A small phalanx of linebackers, defensive ends and safeties that could bruise him off the line, wrestle him off his route and bring him down once he hauled in a pass anyway. In six of his nine seasons, he scored eight or more touchdowns. In four of those, he scored 10 or more. In two of those seasons, he averaged more than 80 receiving yards per game. His worst statistical season still produced 13 yards per catch.
As a perspective on the Patriot dynasty developed over time, Bill Belichick was adamant about discussing Gronkowski’s cerebral side. Perhaps he saw where things were going; that the lay fan would remember the massive touchdown spikes, dopey catchphrases and a steadfast commitment to a sex joke we all learned sometime late in middle school. The truth was that Gronkowski was the fulcrum on which the offense could pivot. New England created so many mismatches, in part, because of its ability to maximize things like pre-snap motioning. Gronkowski knew almost every position on the field, and as such, could move anywhere and make the defense legitimately believe he could catch a touchdown from that spot. He could force the defense to tell Tom Brady what kind of coverage they were playing—a cheat code for the greatest quarterback in NFL history.
There will be tight ends with better receiving statistics than Gronkowski, especially with Jason Witten returning to the game this year to help him close the distance between him and Tony Gonzalez. Who knows what kind of touchdown juggernaut this next era of offense will produce. But there will never be a singular, on-field presence quite like Gronkowski. Even as we kick back to watch him try and foil Mark Wahlberg as some evil, yolked kingpin on the big screen, that’s worth remembering.