Rob Gronkowski retired Sunday. It makes all the sense in the world, but I was still caught off guard by the flood of text messages I received from friends and family. Gronk was beloved in a way that few athletes ever achieve. He was the one guy that everybody can love on a team that most of the country hates. The casual fan loves Gronk. Your mom loves Gronk. So do Diehards.
We’ll never see another modern athlete like Gronk. A well publicized wild man off the field, who aside from a few selfies with porn stars, never had any sort of scandal. He tore up night clubs, hosted his own party cruise, owned a party bus, lived the life that a stud athlete/millionaire in his 20’s should live but some how insulated himself with enough family to avoid the pitfalls that swallow up so many. Most of us only see the tip of his off the field charity endeavors.
What makes Gronk an original is that off the field he’s such the modern athlete, but on the field, he’s as throwback as Bronko Nagurski and leather helmets. Watching Gronkowski run in the open field always felt like he had NFL Films music and John Facenda running with him. But true fans respect him in equal amounts for his punishing blocks that awakened the Patriots running game in 2018. Stiff arms, physicality and guts abound as a second round pick, who after back surgery at Arizona, was never a sure thing to ever have a career in pro football.
The adage that is taken straight from so many NFL Films is: “great players aren’t great all the time. They’re only great when they have to be.” Gronkowski represented that in so many big games.
The performance that will forever stand out in my mind when I think about Rob Gronkowski isn’t Super Bowl 46 when he played with a broken leg. Or even his final game, Super Bowl 53, when he withstood a massive blow to his quad and made the play of the day and set up the winning touchdown.
The performance that I’ll remember best is the 2015 AFC Championship game in Denver. The Patriots lost 20-18. But Gronkowski, battled leg cramps and the thin Mile High air to contribute 8-catches for 144-yards and a touchdown. There were plays in the second half where Gronk couldn’t get up because the cramping was so severe.
On 4th and long with the season on the line, Gronk delivered. His touchdown through triple coverage with just seconds remaining gave the Patriots a chance to tie the game and send it to over time. The Patriots failed two-point conversion gave Peyton Manning his fourth AFC Championship but I’ve never been more impressed by a performance than I was with Rob Gronkowski that day.
Mike Ditka set the standard of tough guys in pro football and as a coach he famously said: “There are teams named Smith and there are teams named Grabowski.” I will paraphrase Iron Mike when I say: “There are tight ends, and then there is a tight end named Gronkowski.”