Rob Gronkowski was great Patriot outlier whose spikes, dominance and antics will be missed

Kimberley A. Martin
·Senior NFL writer

PHOENIX —The rumors lingered in the open, signaling the inevitable final play call.

You knew it would happen eventually. And yet, a game without Rob Gronkowski is still an unimaginable sight.

Many of us are still not ready for this dizzying ride – complete with his goofy grins, meathead “bro talk” and majestic touchdown catches – to end. And yet, here we are.

After nine NFL seasons, New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski announced his retirement Sunday on social media.

“It all started at 20 years old on stage at the NFL draft when my dream came true,” Gronkowski wrote in an Instagram post. “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. I will be retiring from the game of football today.”

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - NOVEMBER 25: New England Patriots Tight End Rob Gronkowski (87) spikes the ball after catching a pass for a touchdown during the first quarter of the New England Patriots versus the New York Jets on November 25, 2018, at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ. (Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
The Gronk Spike became a regular fixture for the Patriots during Rob Gronkowski's nine-year career with the Patriots. (Getty Images)

His body — the 6-6, 265-pound vessel that he used to carve out his own path, carve up defensive schemes and compile a Hall of Fame-worthy résumé — is not what it once was. The physical decline was evident, yet his presence on the field still loomed large. Rumors of his impending retirement had lingered since 2018, following the Patriots’ loss to the Eagles in Super Bowl LII. But, perhaps fittingly, Gronk’s official curtain call comes almost two months after the Patriots’ impressive victory over the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII.

He tormented AFC East opponents, in particular. But he saved some of his best performances for postseason play, when all the world was watching.

Gronkowski finishes his career with three Super Bowl rings, along with 7,861 receiving yards and 79 touchdowns on 521 receptions. (He also rushed for one score.)

He was bigger than just a tight end. He was the best for much of his career.

He transcended the position and he helped changed the Patriots’ offense.

Gronkowski was selected in the second round of the 2010 draft. Aaron Hernandez was selected in the fourth round that same year. Together, the two tight ends wreaked havoc on the field, converging to create a dynamic 1-2 punch in Tom Brady’s ever-changing arsenal of weapons.

But those days feel like a distant memory, especially today.

The careers of those two young stars couldn’t have played out more differently.

One realized his dreams. The other became a tragic, cautionary tale.

Hernandez, a convicted murderer, left this earth almost two years ago, hanging himself in his jail cell.

Gronkowski, meanwhile, is walking away from the game on his own terms. Just like he played it.

He was different. He was fun to watch and be around.

His energy was childlike. His enthusiasm boundless and unbridled.

In Bill Belichick’s tightly controlled monosyllabic world, Gronkowski was the outlier — full of life and laughter for all the world to see. Even his crotchety coach.

His love of life and football were uniquely infectious.

He was dominant. And, arguably, the best to ever do it.

His speed. His size. His smarts.

Gronkowski was the no holds barred frat boy that defenses couldn’t stop no matter how hard coordinators tried.

He was beloved by teammates as much for being the free spirit, as he was the ferocious blocker blessed with hands soft enough to pluck passes from the air.

“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,” Belichick said in a statement.

Over the past few seasons, Gronkowski’s body had betrayed him. And just like that, the game’s most dominant pass-catching machine was rendered mortal.

He knew it.

And so did we.

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - JANUARY 13: Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots reacts with Rob Gronkowski #87 during the third quarter in the AFC Divisional Playoff Game against the Los Angeles Chargers at Gillette Stadium on January 13, 2019 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Rob Gronkowski proved to be a devastating target for Patriots QB Tom Brady. (Getty Images)

“I am so grateful for the opportunity that Mr. Kraft and Coach Belichick gave to me when drafting my silliness in 2010,” Gronkowski wrote in his post. “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 apart of, I just want to thank the whole New England Patriots organization for every opportunity I have been giving and learning the great values of life that I can apply to mine.”

“Thank you to all of Pats Nation around the world for the incredible support since I have been apart of this 1st class organization. Thank you for everyone accepting who I am and the dedication I have put into my work to be the best player I could be. But now its(sic) time to move forward and move forward with a big smile knowing that the New England Patriots Organization, Pats Nation, and all my fans will be truly a big part of my heart for rest of my life.

"It was truly an incredible honor to play for such a great established organization and able to come in to continue and contribute to keep building success. To all my current and past teammates, thank you for making each team every year special to be apart of. I will truly miss you guys. Cheers to all who have been part of this journey, cheers to the past for the incredible memories, and a HUGE cheers to the uncertain of whats next.”

His impressive career, which included five Pro Bowls and four All-Pro selections, was littered with an array of “Gronk Spikes,” smashed beer cans and awkward dance moves along the way to entertain us all.

Gronk made the game better.

And the game was better for him.

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