There are certain sobriquets that resonate viscerally in Boston sports, conjuring wistful feelings of fandom. They’re more than nicknames. They’re shorthand for the lasting impression left by greatness. Yaz. Cooz. Espo. Hondo.
Like one of his trademark spikes, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski left his mark not only on the NFL as possibly the greatest tight end of all-time, but on Boston sports as a football folk hero — a one-of-a-kind tight end who could play and party with the best of them.
A one-name star and a five-letter force of nature, Gronkowski was a massive presence with a massive personality. He was larger than life and larger than the players assigned to cover and tackle him. He was a bruising, brute-force phenom whose runaway 18-wheeler style of play took a toll on opponents and eventually his own body, his career concluding before the age of 30.
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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.
Gronkowski was an NFL supernova, a star who burned ultra-bright and then burned out quickly and completely after nine seasons. In his prime, he was as devastating and unstoppable a weapon as there was in the NFL. Only Randy Moss (101) and Jerry Rice (95) recorded more touchdown receptions before age 30 than Gronkowski’s 79.
At 6 feet 6 inches and 268 pounds, he was too big, too strong, and too good to be covered. “Covered” was a relative term with Gronk, as he would just use one of his meat-hook hands to pluck a Tom Brady pass out of the sky over or around a helpless defender. As a blocker, he turned the wham block into a blunt-force ballet.
“To me, he has been over the last five or six years the most complete tight end in the NFL. In terms of blocking, catching, he does it all,” said 14-time Pro Bowler Tony Gonzalez, whom Gronkowski has said was one of his favorite tight ends growing up. “He doesn’t have to come off the field. They don’t have to hide him in the run game. He’s an asset in the run game.
“He is like the Shaquille O’Neal at the tight end position. He is just bigger, stronger, and better than the other guys.
“Shaq was just unstoppable because you could put one or two guys on him and it didn’t matter because he was just physically bigger and stronger than them. [Gronk] runs the deep over, and it’s over. He gets man-to-man coverage running that deep over and there is nothing anybody can do about it. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.”
Gronkowski leaves a trail of broken tackles and broken records. He’s the Patriots all-time leader in regular-season touchdowns with 80. He set the NFL record for touchdowns in a season by a tight end with 18 (17 receiving) during his epic 2011, when he had 90 catches for 1,327 yards. That was the season receiving yardage record for tight ends until it was broken in 2018.
Gronkowski’s five seasons of 10 or more touchdowns are the most by a tight end in NFL history and the most in Patriots history. He is the only tight end in NFL history with three seasons in which he topped 1,000 yards and scored double-digit touchdowns. His 28 100-yard receiving games trail only Gonzalez, who compiled 31 in 17 seasons, on the all-time list for tight ends.
Gronk was tough to slow down off the field too, a part of his popular persona. He famously declared in questionable Spanish, “Yo soy fiesta,” which translates to, “I am party.”
He partied with porn actresses, danced shirtless on stages in Las Vegas, and appeared in the “Entourage” movie. He used his personality to peddle products (hello, Tide pods) and laughed all the way to the bank, famously living off his endorsement money while saving his NFL earnings.
Gronkowski’s brutish, wrecking-ball style on the field belied his happy-go-lucky attitude off it. But that attitude became harder to maintain as his body became harder to maintain. He foreshadowed his retirement at the Patriots mandatory mini-camp in June 2018.
“I love playing the game of football,” he said then. “The game of football is fun when you’re feeling good, and if you’re not feeling good — I mean, I’ve asked many other players — you really don’t like the game of football,” he said. “But if you’re feeling good, your body feels good, your mind feels good, the joy of playing the game of football is off the charts. But at the same time, if you’re not feeling good, it can be awful.”
Patriots owner Robert Kraft called Gronkowski in 2017 “one of the special people who have come through” the franchise, citing his work off the field in the community and his incomparable play on the field.
“I thought back as a Patriots fan — which I have been since the franchise was created — and as a fan, I just thought how great Russ Francis was at tight end and what a great player he was,” said Kraft. “Then when I was privileged to buy the team in ’94, we had someone like Ben Coates playing, and a couple of years after I owned the team, he really had probably his most productive, wonderful year. I thought he definitely was the greatest tight end in our history.
“Then Rob came on board, and he broke the mold. He’s not only the greatest tight end in franchise history, but I really believe he is maybe one of the best ever to play the game.”
The biggest brother
Gronkowski was born to be an all-time NFL great. He looks like he was genetically engineered in a laboratory to be the apotheosis of tight end play.
But he was a freak of both nature and nurture, the product of extraordinary genes and a play-hard, work-hard clan from Williamsville, N.Y., in the suburbs of Buffalo. He’s the second youngest of Gordon and Diane Gronkowski’s five boys: Gordie Jr., Dan, Chris, Rob, and Glenn.
Gordon, known as “Papa Gronk,” played offensive guard at Syracuse. In 1990, the year after Rob was born, Gordon started a business selling fitness equipment with his brother Glenn called G&G Fitness Equipment. It has burgeoned to 14 retail locations across New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.
But Gordon’s real business was building his kids into professional athletes. He emphasized competition and education. All five of the Gronkowski boys earned athletic scholarships, and four of them played Division 1 college football. The oldest, Gordie Jr., played baseball and was drafted by the Los Angeles Angels. Dan, Chris, and Glenn all played in the NFL. But Rob became the piece de resistance of Gronk Inc., a one-man marketing method for everything Gronkowski.
Even in a family of athletes, Rob stood out, according to legendary NFL writer Vic Carucci of the Buffalo News, who resides a couple of Josh Allen passes from the fields where the Gronkowskis were groomed. Carucci has covered the NFL since 1979, including a lengthy stint at NFL.com and his long-running show on SiriusXM NFL Radio.
Carucci, who has two daughters who went to school with the Gronkowskis, remembered the first time he saw Rob. The greatest Gronkowski was more Cam Neely than John Mackey then.
“The first time I saw him athletically was at a hockey game,” Carucci said. “Our neighbor’s son was on a team with him. Of course you’re watching the game and here is this monster skating all over the place. I think most of the kids were getting out of his way because he was just knocking them over.
“He was this freight train on skates. It was something to behold.
“The first thing I said was, ‘Who the hell was that?’ This neighbor’s dad turned to me and said, ‘That’s Rob Gronkowski.’ And you just couldn’t take your eyes off him. It was amazing stuff. He was roughly 13 or 14 years of age.”
Rob was part of a circle of friends that included Carucci’s youngest daughter, Lindsay. He knew what Carucci did for a living. Never shy and already a towering presence, Gronkowski one day wandered into Carucci’s office, filled with NFL and Buffalo sports memorabilia, and offered prophetic words about his pro football exploits.
“As he’s looking at the shelves, he said, ‘Mr. Carucci, someday you’re going to write a paper about me,’ ” Carucci said.
During his Patriots career, Gronkowski tormented many NFL teams, but he seemed to take additional delight in doing it to his hometown Bills, who passed on him twice in the 2010 NFL Draft. The pick before the Patriots selected Gronkowski in the second round at No. 42 overall, the Bills took defensive tackle Torell Troup. Gronkowski had 69 receptions for 1,070 yards and 12 touchdowns against Buffalo, the highest totals he had against any opponent.
Dancing at the draft
Gronkowski arrived in New England in 2010 from the University of Arizona. The Patriots moved up two spots from No. 44 overall to secure him, making a trade with the Oakland Raiders, the same team that gifted them Moss.
He teamed up with fellow 2010 Patriots draft pick Aaron Hernandez to form arguably the greatest tight end tandem the NFL has ever seen.
Their union was cut short when Hernandez was released by the team in June 2013 after he was implicated in the 2013 murder of his friend Odin Lloyd. Hernandez was convicted of Lloyd’s murder, then committed suicide in his jail cell in 2017 while the verdict still under appeal.
While the Patriots took a chance drafting Hernandez, who had a history of off-field transgressions at the University of Florida, in the fourth round, they also took a risk in drafting Gronkowski after he didn’t play a down of college football in 2009 following back surgery.
The Patriots had an advantage in researching Gronkowski. The father of Patriots wide receivers coach Chad O’Shea was the athletic trainer at the University of Houston. The head football coach there from 2000-02 was Dana Dimel, who was Gronkowski’s tight ends coach at Arizona in 2007 and 2008.
“Chad O’Shea, he called me asking about Rob, and I gave him the scouting report,” said Dimel, who has remained close with Gronkowski and is now the head coach at the University of Texas at El Paso. “Now, we have a running joke. He says, ‘Whenever I ask Dana about a guy, I listen because the last guy was Robby and that kind of worked out OK.’ ”
At the draft in New York, Gronkowski’s family did a group huddle and dance in the green room to celebrate his selection. It was a preview of the personality that would endear him to Patriots fans and make him football’s favorite frat boy.
“He is just a kid in a big old body,” Dimel said. “He has never changed that way.”
Gronkowski’s childlike exuberance and mischievousness could be mistaken for a lack of intelligence. Dimel, who also coached Gronkowski’s brothers Chris and Glenn at Arizona and Kansas State, respectively, said the biggest misconception about the Gronkowski boys is that they’re just jocks. They were all good students.
It’s easy to typecast Gronkowski as a fun-loving football lunk. But the Patriots offense is notoriously difficult for pass-catchers to pick up. It wasn’t for Gronkowski, who scored 10 touchdowns as a rookie.
“He’s football brilliant,” Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman said.
An underappreciated aspect of Gronkowski’s game was his ability to process an intricate offense and get on the same page with Brady. The two played as though linked through telepathy. Their 78 regular-season touchdown connections are the second-most between a quarterback and a tight end in NFL history, trailing only Philip Rivers-Antonio Gates (116)
It didn’t take Brady long to realize that Gronkowski possessed a high football IQ.
“Right away,” said Brady. “You tell him something once, he’s got it. I’m not worried about his English grades or his history grades, but he remembers things and executes things. He has just been so great.
“He is just a unique guy, a great talent, and I just love playing with him. “
That’s high praise from Brady. But the highest praise Gronkowski garnered in his career came from Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
Belichick is a notoriously difficult grader, but Gronkowski’s ability as a blocker impressed the captious coach. When it comes to tight ends, Belichick sets the bar at Bavaro, as in Mark Bavaro, the former rampaging New York Giants tight end. The pride of Danvers, Bavaro’s nickname on the great Giants teams of the late 1980s and early 1990s was “Rambo” for his resemblance to the Sylvester Stallone character and his take-no-prisoners style.
Belichick loves to regale folks with tales of how Bavaro would tussle with Giants linebackers Lawrence Taylor and Carl Banks in practice and be able to block them one-on-one, which few tackles could do. He also has pointed out that the Giants would leave Bavaro solo to block the late, great Reggie White. Belichick considered Gronkowski in the same class.
“I’d say for me, him and Bavaro, they’re the two best that I’ve ever had on a consistent basis for all the different things that they have to do,” said Belichick in 2015.
Birth of the spike
Every icon needs a signature move. For Gronkowski, it was his seismic touchdown celebrations. He would grab the ball, rear back, lifting his front foot off the ground, and then fire the football into the turf with all the force he could muster, a football-defiling declaration of dominance. You can’t say no footballs where harmed in the making of Gronkowski’s career. Some of these spikes registered with the US Geological Survey. The act felt both primitive — “Gronk, spike” — and superlative.
Its origin goes back to Gronkowski’s days at Arizona. He starred at Williamsville North High School in football and basketball, earning second-team All-New York honors as a junior, before transferring to Woodland Hills High School outside of Pittsburgh for his senior season. Gronk chose Arizona over Notre Dame and Clemson. (“I think he liked the coeds at Arizona better,” Dimel said.)
Gronkowski has always been hyper-competitive, tracing back to his days growing up Gronk.
That competitiveness gave birth to the Gronk Spike. In 2008, Arizona was having its first-team offense and defense square off. Head coach Mike Stoops became animated when his defense stopped the offense, as Dimel recalled. That was all Gronkowski needed. The offense called a tight end middle screen for Gronkowski from the 30. Gronkowski took it to the house. Then he took it to Stoops.
“Robby scores and runs up and spikes the ball right in front of Coach Stoops,” Dimel said. “It got the kids fired up and excited. Ever since that day, when he would score in practice, he would spike the ball. He couldn’t do it in games in college back then. Then, the first time he scored in the NFL, he did it.”
Gronkowski got to spike the ball a lot during his career. In addition to the 80 career touchdowns he scored in the regular season, he scored 12 touchdowns in the postseason while winning three Super Bowl titles. Only Rice (22) had more postseason touchdown catches.
Putting up wide receiver production while dealing with the responsibilities of a tight end in a Belichick offense is the essence of Gronk’s greatness.
“It’s incredibly hard,” said Gonzalez, who’s second all-time in receptions to Rice. “There are tight ends now that probably don’t know how to get into a three-point stance. I don’t blame them. Blocking isn’t something you want to do. It’s not fun. It’s not desirable.
“Gronk is that quintessential throwback tight end. He is a real tight end. I respect the hell out of him for that.”
As great as Gronkowski was, one of the great what-ifs of Boston sports history is what he could have been had he been able to stay healthy. Injuries did what defenses could not: Slow him down. Between 2012 and 2018, including the postseason, he missed 33 games.
Gronkowski clearly wasn’t the same player in 2018, as he gutted out back and ankle ailments and bounced on and off the injury report. It affected his play and his mood. He had only 47 catches for 682 yards and tied his career low for touchdowns (three) while missing three games. In Week 16 against the Bills, he had zero catches on three targets, the first time in his career he was held catchless in a contest where he was targeted more than once and didn’t leave with an injury.
Dating back to the end of his college days, Gronkowski has endured as many as nine surgeries, three on his balky back. His list of injuries is almost as long as his list of accomplishments: ankle ligament, back, forearm, torn ACL, pulmonary contusion, concussion.
Gronkowski’s style of play was never built to last. His size invited the injury issues that prematurely ended his career. He was not only a big target for Brady. Opponents often went after him as if they were trying to fell a redwood.
In 2013, T.J. Ward, then playing for the Cleveland Browns, chopped Gronkowski down at the knee after a catch, tearing the tight end’s ACL. An angry Belichick glared at Ward. But as Ward pointed out, what else was he supposed to do, given Gronkowski’s size and NFL rule changes designed to mitigate concussions? The choices for opposing players were to get out of the way, get run over, or get him down by any means necessary. In that way, Gonzalez said, he became “a victim of his own mystique.”
“Gronk, he is a bigger guy, a power guy,” Gonzalez said. “He isn’t going to juke people; his game is power, run you over. It’s hard to sustain that. It’s hard to play that way. Earl Campbell, whoever you are . . . it’s not going to sustain long-term.
“You look at Antonio Gates, he’s not running people over anymore. You have to adapt. You just can’t play that way forever. Jeremy Shockey, ask him how that worked out. It just shortens your career when you try to do that stuff.”
The what-ifs don’t belong only to Gronk. Would there be a few more Lombardi Trophies in the lobby at One Patriot Place if Gronkowski had been able to deliver the Full Gronk in more postseasons? No less an authority than Belichick believes so.
In the “Do Your Job” documentary on the 2014 Super Bowl champion Patriots, Belichick made the rare admission that the absence of one player could be the difference. The Hoodie hinted that the Patriots might have won the Super Bowl during the 2011, 2012, or 2013 seasons if they had a healthy Gronkowski.
“Had Rob been healthy in any of those three years, as close as those outcomes were, it might have the made the difference,” Belichick told NFL Films. “The two big factors in those seasons, in the ultimate end of those seasons, were his lack of availability, and our overall ability to play defense in some critical situations.”
The Patriots did win the Super Bowl in 2016 with Gronkowski sidelined.
Gronkowski’s injuries led him to change the way he trained, adopting some of Brady’s TB12 method and trading muscle mass for pliability. That decision contributed to the rift between Brady and Belichick that was brought to light by ESPN’s Seth Wickersham in January 2018.
Gronkowski openly contemplated retiring following the 2017 season, and along with Brady skipped the team’s offseason workout and on-field OTA sessions in 2018. Unsure of his commitment to football or the Patriots, Belichick tried to trade him. Gronkowski confirmed this season that he nixed a deal to the Detroit Lions by threatening to retire. He said Brady was the only quarterback he wanted to play with, effectively pledging his fealty to the quarterback, not the coach.
In the end, it’s the thrills that Gronkowski provided that will linger long after the embers of his career go cold.
We’ll remember the exhilaration of watching him do the impossible, like the 46-yard touchdown romp against the Bears in 2014 where he threw Chicago’s Ryan Mundy to the ground with one hand and then outraced the rest of the defense to the end zone.
Or the go-ahead 37-yard touchdown he scored against the Redskins in 2011, discarding 6-foot-4-inch, 259-pound defensive end Ryan Kerrigan, who was wrapped around Gronk’s waist like a fanny pack, like a candy wrapper before breaking away.
Who can forget Gronkowski rag-dolling former teammate Sergio Brown in a game against the Indianapolis Colts and then remarking that he “threw him out of the club” because Brown had been yapping?
Gronk was a sui generis talent and personality rolled into one unforgettable package. He was an alpha male with a boyish charm. He was a joy to watch with an undeniable joie de vivre. He was a one-of-a-kind talent and a relatable everyman.
He retires with a place in Boston sports lore and a place in the debate for the greatest tight end to ever play the game.
“I don’t believe in the whole greatest of all-time,” Gonzalez said. “I think he certainly deserves his name up there as the best ever, in the conversation.
“It’s one of those ‘who is the best?’ arguments. Is it LeBron or Jordan, or Jordan or Kobe? This is the fun stuff in sports. His name is absolutely in the ring, though, just like Joe Montana, Tom, Peyton [Manning], Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees are all there at quarterback.
“It’s like who is the greatest rapper of all-time, Tupac or Biggie? I’m definitely glad that I’m on that list, and Gronk is definitely without a doubt on that list.”