We knew it was a possibility, maybe even a probability. But the news Sunday night that Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski was retiring from the NFL still hit so hard that you could relate to Sergio Brown.
If there is anyone else in Boston sports history who combined Hall of Fame talent, production, and big-moment reliability with genuine joy and authenticity, I’m too busy watching a Gronk retrospective in my mind — hopefully he’ll be the most satisfying “A Football Life” documentary in the series — to remember that other athlete right now.
It’s always hard to accept watching an athlete so special leave, even when it should not come as a surprise. So here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to choose not to accept it, at least that this farewell is final.
Willie McGinest last played for the Patriots 14 years ago, but make no mistake: The current NFL Network analyst remains a member of the Patriots family, as much of an insider as someone who doesn’t have an office at Gillette Stadium can be.
McGinest told us a couple of weeks ago that it was just his opinion that Gronkowski would retire to start the season but return before it was over. That’s an opinion that carries weight, because he knows things.
“I think Gronk is going to take a break for a while,” McGinest said. “I don’t think he’s going to initially start off, and [then will] come back. This is just my own assessment.
“Later on, deep in the season, he could come back. He’s going to let his body heal up and I think, mentally, he’s not football right now. He’s not ready to put on the pads and play football.”
McGinest did hedge on that during an appearance on WEEI a few days later, but it’s a comment we should keep tucked away in our minds. This isn’t Stephen A. Smith heaving up barely considered conjecture to fill his daily hot-take quota. I’d bet McGinest knows more than he’s revealed all along.
Gronk has come back from so much before, which in an obvious kind of way is why he’s leaving now, or at least for now. The injuries he has endured have turned him into the “Operation” board game character, except rather than injuries to the funny bone and the breadbasket, he’s endured the kind of damage to his back and knee in particular that could be debilitating.
Heck, the reason he was a second-round pick in the 2010 draft was a back injury that kept him out of his final season at Arizona. This week has provided two distinct looks at the risks and rewards of drafting talented players that enter the league as injury risks. Gronk emerged as the most dominant force ever at the tight end position despite missing 29 games in his nine seasons. Meanwhile, receiver Malcolm Mitchell, so clutch in the Super Bowl win over the Falcons, retired last week because a knee injury that caused him to fall to the fourth round in 2016 abbreviated his career.
We know football is a cruel sport in several ways, a sport that requires significant cognitive dissonance to enjoy. It was disheartening at times to watch Gronk struggle with that growing knowledge in recent years as his body disobeyed him. He had a very tough 2018 season physically — the back remained an issue, and his Achilles’ tendon barked all season — and it was jarring to see his effervescence give way to somberness at times.
It would not have stunned me if at some point at his glummest he paraphrased the famous Alex Karras line from “Blazing Saddles”: “Gronk just a pawn in the game of life.”
The Patriots season of course was another extremely satisfying one, what with the hoarding of a sixth Lombardi Trophy and all. Perhaps the best thing about it was how right it went for Gronk at the end. His 29-yard full-extension catch while triple-covered of a beautiful Tom Brady throw set up the only touchdown of Super Bowl LIII.
It was a breathtaking play, a seized moment when stakes were highest, confirmation in real time of how much Brady trusted him and how unstoppable they so often were in tandem.
I loved watching those times when Gronk would be quiet in the passing game for a while — probably because he was busy mauling defenders as a blocker — and then the Patriots would need a big play, so Brady would flip the Activate the Gronk switch and he’d have three catches on the next four or so plays to give them exactly what was needed.
If he does not come back, and that catch in the Super Bowl was our last memory of him as an active player, well, what a perfect walkoff scene.
If this is it, and he settles into a life as a WWE star or a regular in action movies or just someone who happily glides through his 30s and beyond doing whatever makes him happy, there are a couple of proclamations to make:
1. He is without a doubt the best tight end in NFL history, even in a reasonably short NFL career. Tony Gonzalez was excellent for a long time, and guys like Ozzie Newsome and Kellen Winslow were special in their time, but there’s never been a force like Gronk.
In just nine years and 115 games, he tied for the most 1,000-yard seasons by a tight end (four) with Gonzalez and Jason Witten (who has returned to the NFL after a hiatus). He had 79 touchdowns — trailing only Gonzalez and Antonio Gates among tight ends — and added 12 more in the playoffs. He was Russ Francis and Ben Coates put together.
2. If you don’t like Gronk, the problem is you. Sure, he did some dumb things. The spearing cheap shot on Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White in 2017 was brutal, and the whole catching-beers-from-the-crowd thing during championship parades was a riot when he did it but soon became a menace to those on the duck boats. The Yo Soy Fiesta attitude sometimes reminded you of the meathead frat boy in college who always had an effortlessly better time than you did.
But soon after he got here, you realized his bro-ish effervescence was his real self. And then you saw him with kids — he was a regular visitor at Boston Children’s Hospital, always without fanfare — and kids can spot a fake. Gronk was as kind and attentive to kids as any famous person I’ve ever seen. He’s listed at 6 feet 6 inches, but his heart was his biggest muscle.
Gronk always had so much to give, on the field and off. Maybe it’s selfish to want more of the former; this is someone who should get to go out on his own terms.
But right now, as I watch all of these Gronk highlights on the various sports shows (holy cow, that one-handed catch in Denver), I can’t help but hope that McGinest will be revealed to have known something and Gronk returns, rested, healthy, and ready midseason.
If it doesn’t happen, and there are no September reports of him working out at TB12 or whispers of a November return, the words shared to Instagram from the teammate who threw the ball his way all these years are as fitting a tribute as there can be.
“The NFL,’’ wrote Tom Brady, “was a better place with you in it.”
Here’s hoping we get further confirmation of that sentiment again.