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Star Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski announces he is retiring

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff) (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/file)

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PHOENIX — Patriots star tight end Rob Gronkowski ended months of speculation Sunday by announcing his retirement from football after nine seasons and three Super Bowl championships with the Patriots.

Gronkowski, 29, announced the decision in an Instagram post after taking nearly two months since the end of last season to deliberate. Gronkowski called Robert Kraft early Sunday and delivered the news a few hours before announcing it to the world.

“I am so grateful for the opportunity that Mr. [Robert] Kraft and Coach [Bill] Belichick gave to me when drafting my silliness in 2010,” Gronkowski said in his post. “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.”

A second-round pick out of Arizona who fell in the draft because of questions about his back, Gronkowski caught 521 passes for 7,861 yards and 79 touchdowns in nine seasons, all with the Patriots. He emerged right away as a dominant force, catching 10 touchdowns as a rookie in 2010 and setting records for a tight end with 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns in his second season.

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Beloved across New England for his goofy personality and his “Gronk spike” after touchdowns, Gronkowski was a five-time Pro Bowler and four-time first-team All-Pro. He helped the Patriots win three Super Bowls, though he was injured and didn’t play in Super Bowl LI against the Falcons, and is the Patriots’ all-time leader in touchdowns. Gronkowski is almost certain to end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, possibly in his first year of eligibility five years from now.

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Gronkowski teamed with Aaron Hernandez in the early 2010s to revolutionize the two-tight-end offense, and continued to dominate well after Hernandez left the team. Gronkowski was a wide receiver in a tight end’s body, and his 91 touchdown catches (including postseason) rank behind only Jerry Rice, Randy Moss, Marvin Harrison, and Terrell Owens for most TD catches in the first nine years of a career.

Gronkowski also was a rarity in today’s NFL as a complete tight end who often thrived as a run blocker.

“His elite combination of size, skill, intelligence, toughness, and ability to perform in pressure situations set him apart,’’ said coach Bill Belichick in a statement. “Rob will leave an indelible mark on the Patriots organization and the game as among the best, most complete players at his position to ever play.”

“In the nine years that I have known Rob Gronkowski, I have never known him to have a bad day. He always has a youthful exuberance about him and is a joy to be around,’’ Kraft said in a statement. “While Patriots fans are certainly going to miss seeing him play, he will be a Patriot for life.’’

The tributes from teammates and opponents started pouring in on social media late Sunday, from Julian Edelman to J.J. Watt and Tom Brady, among many others.

“Love u man!! The [goat]!!” Brady wrote on the Instagram post. “Couldn’t be a better person or teammate!!!!”

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“Congratulations to Rob on a Hall of Fame Career,” his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, said in a statement. “As great a player he has been, he is an even better person. His impact on and off the field have been gigantic and he will be remembered as one of the All time legends of the game!”

View this post on Instagram

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.

A post shared by Rob Gronkowski (@gronk) on

Gronkowski also suffered myriad injuries throughout his career, with multiple surgeries on his back, knee, and forearm. Gronk’s production dipped significantly in 2018 as he dealt with back and ankle injuries throughout the second half of the season, but he seemed to regain his energy and health in the playoffs. Gronkowski had six catches for 79 yards in the AFC Championship game win over the Chiefs, and six catches for 87 yards in the Super Bowl LIII win over the Rams.

Gronkowski’s final catch for the Patriots was one of his most memorable — an acrobatic 29-yard catch late in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl that led to the game’s only touchdown and helped seal the championship for the Patriots.

“He made a big play to help them defeat us, and I do remember saying when the play was going, ‘You know what? I’ve seen that one on ESPN a lot. Too bad I got to feel that one tonight,” Rams GM Les Snead said Sunday afternoon from the NFL owners meetings. “He was a physical mismatch – just one of those guys that out-bigged and out-stronged you, went up and got rebounds.”

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Gronkowski has toyed with retirement for more than a year, and strongly considered it last offseason before deciding to return for the 2018 campaign. He clashed with the Patriots many times about his contract and demanding work environment, but he eventually found a middle ground with the team each time.

A popular off-field personality with several high-profile endorsements, including Dunkin’ Donuts and Tide, Gronkowski could easily transition to the world of professional wrestling, and has long dreamed of entering the entertainment world as an actor.

Gronkowski was set to enter the final year of his contract, which would have paid him up to $10 million in 2019. Instead, the Patriots will save all of that cash and approximately $9.5 million in cap space, giving them some much-needed breathing room against the salary cap. Gronkowski can always unretire, and the Patriots will retain his rights if he ever decides to return.

But Gronkowski’s retirement also leaves a giant hole in the Patriots’ offense. Already they were thin at receiver and tight end, where their only established options were Edelman and Gronkowski. Now that Gronkowski is retired, their only tight ends are career backup Matt Lacosse, and youngsters Jacob Hollister and Ryan Izzo. The Patriots didn’t sign a tight end in free agency — they reportedly were interested in Jared Cook, but he is about to sign a deal with the Saints — and they also released Dwayne Allen, who promptly signed with Miami.

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One veteran still available is Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who has similar size and body type to Gronkowski, but played just five games for Jacksonville last year. But the Patriots’ best bet to replace Gronkowski is probably through the draft, which has three elite prospects this year – T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant from Iowa, and Irv Smith Jr. from Alabama. The Patriots may have to trade up from the No. 32 pick to get one of them, but the Patriots also have 12 draft picks as ammunition for a trade, including six in the first three rounds.


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin