Rob Gronkowski is a rare NFL breed. This much we already know. The 6-foot-6-inch, 265-pound monster of athletic ability has spent a career redefining the tight end position, a solid block of human granite who can block, catch, and run, all with equal skill, a guy who manages to play his heart out at the same time as wearing it on his sleeve.
It’s a combination of personality and ability that Patriots fans know well. As the man himself said of his nine-year, three-Super Bowl-run in New England, “That’s where the legend of Gronk started. That’s where it boomed.”
It’s not, as it turns out, where it will end. Gronkowski is booming again, and his emergence from a one-year retirement to join his buddy Tom Brady in Tampa managed to boom itself all the way to a Super Bowl appearance Sunday against the Chiefs.
But if Brady’s departure remains a sort of open wound, a free agent exit that left fans alternately heartbroken and angry, Gronk’s exit, despite being engineered in an even more deliberate way than Brady’s, feels far less emotionally complicated.
The lovable lug didn’t do the Patriots any favors on his way out, not when he delayed his retirement announcement long enough to keep an unsure front office off the tight end market and not again when his post-retirement trade demand (Brady or bust) left them with little to no bargaining power.
With Gronk, however, shrewdness and savvy have never been perceived as calculating, but rather rooted in sincerity. Perhaps the comments of Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht help explain why.
“Man, if you are having a bad day, I suggest any of you just go spend a little time with Gronk,” Licht said. “He just lifts you up just by being himself.
“We have conversations every day that I look forward to. I tell my wife, ‘I can’t wait to go talk to Gronk at practice today.’ He is just being himself, he is very authentic. He loves the game, and when it’s time to be serious, he is very serious.
“There is a lot of talk about what Tom has done for this locker room, and it’s all warranted, but what Gronk has done for this locker room is equally as amazing.”
There was Gronk Monday, sitting in his empty interview room, finishing what appeared to be a large protein-type drink through a straw as he awaited the start of the Zoom call, then immediately cracking how much he enjoyed what was supposed to be the first question when the reporter was either not there or still muted.
The conversation from there was classic Gronk, a rollicking 45-minute back-and-forth that ranged far and wide. A testimonial to his mother and how she still packs him a to-go meal after he visits with her. Another to former coach Bill Belichick (despite the fact that Gronk said he hasn’t heard from Belichick since joining the Buccaneers) for all he taught him about the game.
There was a hilarious story about how he duped his new strength coach by making extra recordings of required sprint workouts by simply changing his shirt. A shoutout to Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, whose game he loves, and a quick dissertation on how much their position has evolved over time. A hilarious description of the Brady/Patrick Mahomes GOAT/kid meme his mother sent him.
And, of course, a love letter to the fans he left behind, told in classic Gronk style: simple and direct, real and honest.
“My friends and family that I’ve been hearing from, I get a sense that there’s a lot of people cheering for us,” he said. “It’s good to hear. It’s a sense of relief to hear.
“When I was there, I appreciated everything, from the organization to the fans. They are unbelievable fans up there. It’s cool to hear that they’re still watching. My friends up there are saying everyone here is cheering for you, and it’s cool to be appreciated like that.
“When I was up there, I did give everything I had, everything on the field, at practice, at charity events. It was special and it settles in a place in my heart.
“I appreciate those times, I’m grateful for those times. I learned so much. I feel like I grew throughout those times, learned so much information about the game of football, the game of life, everything overall throughout my nine years there.
“The family, the friends I’ve met, the people, everything, the atmosphere. That will always be in a special place in my heart.”
It was no surprise that the Buccaneers chose Gronkowski to help deliver their allotment of Super Bowl tickets to front-line health care workers, a job he relished, recounting how he made different videos for each recipient. That’s the thing with Gronk ― his presence is comforting, to the world at large, and to the locker room around him.
Of course Brady wanted him back, but as much as Brady wanted it, Gronk only wanted to play with Brady. In 2018, that meant threatening early retirement rather than being part of a proposed trade with Detroit.
“Yeah, it happened,” the tight end told reporters after that season’s Week 3 loss to the Lions. “Brady’s my quarterback, that’s all. Wasn’t going anywhere without Brady.”
With Gronk, it’s that simple. Just as that year in retirement was. He needed it. His body needed rest. His brain needed rest. His personality needed some room to move, freed of the Belichickian constraints.
With time and healing, and one seismic roster move, he was ready to return. That he did it down in Tampa could have left a lot of hurt feelings back in New England, where the hole at tight end has yet to be filled. But this is Gronk. It’s just too hard to stay angry at him.