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As final acts go, Rob Gronkowski gave us a great one, helping the Patriots to a third Super Bowl championship in five years a couple of months ago in Atlanta. As final catches go, the last one of an NFL career he revealed Sunday is over was pretty perfect too, representing so much of what made the lovable lug of a tight end such an integral part of the Patriots’ winning ways.
And as final impressions go, the one Gronkowski leaves after nine years in the NFL is as indelible as it is memorable, filled with football and fun in equal measure. A beautiful study of a man who didn’t simply play the game as well as anybody who ever took the field, but loved it as much as any of them did too.
It was obvious every time he took the field.
There he was in the Super Bowl, midway through the fourth quarter of a tied, taut title game, laying his body out among three defenders, circling his meat-hook hands around a perfectly lofted 29-yard pass from buddy Tom Brady, cradling it like a newborn baby as he touched down at the Rams’ 2-yard line.
It was everything Gronk is about.
It was clutch, setting up New England’s go-ahead touchdown one play later. It was tough, completed down the left seam of the field while defenders both nipped at his heels and clawed at his arms. It was athletic, moving this tree-trunk like body as if it were made only of flowing branches. It was smart, born of so many practice reps with Brady that it could be effected as routine, even when the stakes were at their highest.
It was real. And it was spectacular.
So wipe a tear or hoist a glass to your favorite tight end today, and bid farewell to a player whose entire career was so on brand he helped make an expression like that a thing. Keeping it that way right until the final move, leaving the game on terms entirely of his own.
“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,” Gronkowski wrote on Instagram Sunday, the way he told the world of his career decision. “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 [the] rest of my life. “
He will be in their hearts as much as they are in his. What a way to go out.
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Never mind the Super Bowl. That was just the sprinkles on an already amazing ice cream sundae. Remember, this was a long, strange trip of a season for Gronkowski, one filled with insult and injury. From an offseason arm-in-arm stance with Brady to skip voluntary team workouts to a midseason injury hiatus that kept him from taking the field, from an admission he nixed a potential preseason trade by threatening to hasten his retirement to an admission he couldn’t do everything when his failure to make a late-season, last-second tackle allowed the Miracle in Miami, this was a decidedly up and down journey for the soon-to-be 30-year old.
But across the season’s final few weeks, the full circle of Gronk was complete. There he was against the Chargers in the divisional round, reminding us all he is the most complete tight end of his generation, turning his body into a battering ram equal to anything his offensive line teammates were doing.
The Patriots couldn’t have won that game without Gronk’s willingness to forgo the sexiness of pass catching for the down-and-dirty necessity of run blocking. But a week later, they couldn’t have beaten the Chiefs without that sexiest version of Gronk, his galloping form and smooth hands turning him into that uncoverable force of nature once again.
Two weeks later in Atlanta, he combined the two faces of himself in perfect harmony. In that one crucial play, he was his best Patriots self. And now that we understand that fourth-quarter catch would be his last for New England, now that we’ve heard what we long suspected would be true, let it be remembered as a perfect final act, a perfect final catch, and a perfect final impression.
Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.