As the New England Patriots were preparing in January for their seemingly annual trip to the Super Bowl, Rob Gronkowski burst into the media room at Gillette Stadium for his weekly press conference and smiled.

Of course he did.

Gronkowski, a three-time Super Bowl champion and the most unstoppable offensive option the Patriots have ever had, always smiled. On the field. In the locker room. Making visits to hospitals. Dancing into the early hours of the morning.

He could have been drenched in sweat, eye black melting down his cheeks, surrounded by dozens of video cameras and microphones, and he would smile.

Life was a game to Rob Gronkowski. He loved to have a good time no matter what he did. But he took the game of football more seriously than most people thought and that’s why he was so good.

He retired Sunday, making the announcement on Instagram, of course.

He leaves behind a legacy that may never be touched. At 6-foot-6, 268 pounds, he was the greatest tight end in NFL history. And don’t @ me. If Tom Brady is the GOAT  at quarterback, he shares that acronym with his buddy at tight end.

Yes, Tony Gonzalez holds the NFL record for catches by a tight end (1,325), and yards (15,127). Three other tight ends are ranked in the top 50 pass receivers all-time – Jason Witten (who coincidentally is coming OUT of retirement this year), Antonio Gates and Shannon Sharpe.

But no one combined the brute blocking force and pass catching brilliance of Gronkowski. Just ask former Indianapolis Colts defensive back Sergio Brown. During a 2014 Sunday night game between the Patriots and Colts, Brown got on Gronkowski’s bad side. And on one play, Gronkowski blocked him into the stands. Asked about it later, Gronkowski said he “threw him out of the club.”

He was a throwback to John Mackey and Mike Ditka, old-time Hall of Fame tight ends who were fierce blockers. Anyone who watched the Patriots drive to their sixth Super Bowl championship last season saw Gronkowski put on a blocking clinic, opening huge holes on the outside for Sony Michel and James White.

He retires at age 29 with 15 NFL records, including most postseason career receiving yards (1,163 – the only tight end to go over 1,000 yards in the postseason), most catches (23) and receiving yards (297) by a tight end in the Super Bowl, most touchdown catches by a tight end in a season (17, 2011), most seasons with 10-plus touchdown catches by a tight end (five) and most seasons of 1,000-plus receiving yards by a tight end (four, tied with Gonzalez and Witten).

And here’s the rub: He did it in just 115 games. Gonzalez played in 270 games, Whitten 239, Gates 236, Sharpe 204. His nine-year career was hampered by a bad back (which the Patriots knew about when they made him their second pick in the 2010 draft), an ACL tear and a broken forearm that required extra time to heal. He missed 24 regular-season games and six playoff games because of injuries.

He made one-handed catches look easy. He bounced off defensive backs as if they were a mere annoyance. He spiked the ball with such force that it may have registered on the Richter scale.

He was Brady’s binky, his security blanket. When the Patriots lined Gronkowski up on the outside, it was a mismatch no matter who covered him. It was Gronkowski that Brady went to late in the fourth quarter of the AFC championship game in Kansas City, a 25-yard pass that set up Rex Burkhead’s go-ahead score. It was also Gronkowski who caught a 15-yard pass in overtime to set up Burkhead’s winning touchdown.

Then, in the Super Bowl, it was his diving 29-yard catch in the fourth quarter that set up the game’s only touchdown, a 2-yard run by Michel. It’s fitting that would be Gronkowski’s last catch, a highlight that never will be forgotten by the Patriots’ faithful.

Neither will his personality. He posed for photos with kittens (shirtless of course, which may be his fashion of choice), danced whenever prompted and made appearances at pro wrestling events. He drew huge lines wherever he went, like the time in 2011 that he threw out the first pitch at Hadlock Field.

And he gave back to the community. Gronkowski often visited schools and children’s hospitals, in 2018 visiting the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital at Maine Medical Center to present a $25,000 check and to teach some of its patients how to spike a football. As Patriots owner Robert Kraft said Sunday night, “There was no better remedy for hospital patients than a visit from Gronk.”

He’ll be missed by the Patriots. He provided an understated leadership in the locker room. And he brought an energy, a life, to a Patriots team that often was categorized as never having fun.

In his statement Sunday night Bill Belichick said of Gronkowski, “His production spoke for itself, but his daily attitude, unmistakably positive energy wherever he went and toward whoever he touched will never be forgotten.”

No it won’t.

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: MikeLowePPH

 


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