It is becoming increasingly common place for athletes to be labelled as great within their chosen sport. But only a select few can go down as true game-changing legends in their respective field.
There are greats and then there are the likes of Muhammad Ali, Diego Maradona and Michael Jordan, who elevate their game to another, more historic level.
While quarterbacks tend to get most of the attention and glory when it comes to NFL history, I would put tight end Rob Gronkowski in that illustrious group as he announces his retirement from the New England Patriots.
- Most rec YPG (68.4) by a TE in NFL history
- Most recs (81), rec yds (1,163) & rec TD (12) by a TE in NFL playoff history
- Most rec TD (79) since 2010
- Played 131 of 166 possible career games, including playoffs
- statistics courtesy of NFL research
As he walks away from the game at the age of 29, Gronk can reflect on tremendous numbers as he caught 521 passes for 7,861 yards (15.1 average) and 79 touchdowns.
It is that average-per-reception number that deserves greater attention… by way of reference, the great Jerry Rice averaged 14.8 yards per catch during his Hall of Fame career and lightning-quick Kansas City Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill averages 14.6 yards per reception.
Gronk was a revolutionary game-changer and truly was one of a kind – on and off the field. He was unique and impossible to contain at the tight end position. Oh, and Gronk was no one-trick pony. For good measure, he might go down as the best blocking tight end in NFL history. He moved people off the line like an offensive lineman, which brings me to his size.
At 6ft 6in and 265 pounds, Gronk was basically an offensive tackle blessed with the ability to run deep downfield, catch passes and run away from defenders. In fact, one overlooked area of his game – when at the height of his powers – was his ability to catch passes and pick up huge chunks of yardage after the grab, either by running over or away from defenders.
The speed was one thing, but his physicality was another all together and led to many incidents of on-field embarrassment for NFL defenders as Gronk, in his own words, “threw them out of the club.”
Gronk was an every-week reminder that the NFL was growing bigger, stronger and faster with each passing year. The starting offensive tackles on the Chicago Bears’ Super Bowl-winning team from the 1985 season were Jimbo Covert (6ft 4in and 277 pounds) and Keith Van Horne (6ft 6in, 281 pounds). Gronk was in the same physical ballpark as that pair but ran like a wide receiver.
This is not meant as a slight on Tom Brady in any way, but New England’s ‘GOAT’ quarterback was significantly better when Gronkowski was on the field. And, sadly, there were times when Gronk was absent as the three-time Super Bowl champion underwent some significant injuries (arm, knee and back to name a few) during his career.
Countless times over the years, we would trot out ‘Brady with and without Gronk’ graphics on Sky Sports. I cannot remember the exact numbers, but I know the eyeball test told me how important Gronkowski was to New England’s attack. The Patriots didn’t have tremendous outside wide receiver talent over the past decade, but they didn’t need it with Gronk and Julian Edelman dominating the middle of the field.
It is not hyperbole to suggest Gronkowski truly changed the tight end position, placing great emphasis on the safety position in the defence.
In fact, the only way for a defence to truly conquer Gronk would have been to head into Frankenstein’s lab and create a player with a cornerback’s speed and cover skills, a safety’s athleticism and the hitting ability of a linebacker. Such a player, of course, does not exist and that is why Gronkowski was free to run roughshod over the NFL for the best part of a decade.
Off the field, Gronkowski was a law unto himself. In my mind, he was a child in a man’s body, much like Tom Hanks’ character in the Big movie.
While some are stifled in the ‘work hard, team-first’ environment in New England, Gronk had enough confidence in himself to become one of the biggest characters in the NFL.
I first interviewed him in the summer of 2012 and it would be fair to say that Gronk was unique. We chatted about his career in general but also spoke about pre-game routines as part of a wider article featuring a number of players around the NFL.
While players across the league spoke about stretching, ice baths, prayers and various superstitions, what did Gronk do before each game to get himself ready?
“I like to drink a big glass of chocolate milk,” Gronk replied, with his goofy smile slapped all across his face.
I then met Gronk again later that year during the 2012 NFL Fan Rally in Trafalgar Square ahead of the following day’s game at Wembley Stadium between the Patriots and the St. Louis Rams. The All-Pro tight end was on the stage in front of thousands of British NFL fans along with team owner Robert Kraft, head coach Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and a handful of other team-mates.
Ross Tucker and I were in the middle of interviewing Gronk when some bright spark in the crowd started a “spike the mic” chant. Of course, Gronkowski obliged and slammed the microphone into the stage with earth-shattering force.
The London crowd roared its approval while Belichick looked on with a tight and uncomfortable smile on his face. A day later, he scored a touchdown at Wembley and stomped up and down the end zone in tribute to “that nutcracker dude who stands outside Buckingham Palace.”
While Belichick squirmed on that day in Trafalgar Square, Gronk rarely cared what his coach thought about his off-field actions. A notorious party animal in the offseason – his party boat antics became the stuff of legend – Gronkowski didn’t let his off-field persona affect his performances on Sundays. In the ultimate production business, Gronk produced the goods every weekend and that’s how he and Belichick – two polar opposites – were able to co-exist. They shared the common goal of being total driven to succeed year after year.
Gronk was also not quite the goofy and lovable fool that we saw in public. A couple of years ago he revealed a wise head on his beer-chugging shoulders by admitting he had never spent a dollar of his annual salaries, preferring instead to live year-to-year on his endorsement money.
While injuries had taken their toll and Gronkowski went quiet for long periods of the 2018 season, the five-time Pro Bowler went out at the very top of the game and was pivotal to New England’s inevitable Super Bowl glory.
In the AFC title game against Kansas City, Gronk caught a 25-yard pass to set up a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. He also reeled in a 15-yarder on third down to set up New England’s winning score in overtime.
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It all started at 20 years old on stage at the NFL draft when my dream came true, 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. I am so grateful for the opportunity that Mr. Kraft and Coach Belichick gave to me when drafting my silliness in 2010. 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 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.
And then in a Super Bowl where big plays on offense were at a premium, Gronkowski came up with the biggest of them all. And it was a classic Gronk catch as he stretched the field, bodied out Rams defenders and made a tremendous diving catch for a gain of 29 yards. It was his final catch in a glittering career, setting up New England’s winning touchdown and allowing Gronkowski to go out as a champion.
Over the weekend in conversation with his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, Gronk said: “I’m going out on top.”
That is very true indeed and it is fair to say that the NFL might not see his likes for a long time, if ever again – on and off the field.