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Super Bowl LIII Brought Us the Last Great Gronking

Over the past nine seasons, Rob Gronkowski has stood for everything the Patriots otherwise have not: joy, pure athletic dominance, partying hard on cruise ships in the Caribbean. If his pivotal catch Sunday goes down as his last great NFL moment, it couldn’t be more fitting.

New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Rob Gronkowski won the Patriots Super Bowl LIII. After more than 50 minutes of action during which two of the league’s top offenses were systematically shut down, Gronkowski made the play that set up Sunday’s only touchdown. He wasn’t open—he was covered by Rams linebacker Cory Littleton, with cornerback Marcus Peters trailing and safety John Johnson III closing fast. But Tom Brady threw the ball into a space inhabited by none of those people. Only Gronk could get to that ball, and he did.

Once New England brought a touchdown to a field-goal fight, the game was over. The only man capable of getting the ball near the goal line was this 6-foot-6 behemoth. The Pats reached the end zone a play later en route to a 13-3 victory, the sixth championship of the Brady-Belichick era and the third since Gronk joined the franchise in 2010.

The Gronkowski origin story says that he comes from a Buffalo football family that also sent three of his brothers to the NFL. I’ve never believed it. I believe that Gronk is a Transformer turned human. At first, this seems awesome: Rob’s cyborg combination of size, speed, and power makes him unguardable on a football field, a matchup problem from the moment he entered the league. But now that he’s no longer a robot, Gronk can feel physical pain, and his career has been defined by near-constant injuries. One day Gronk discovered booze, a liquid that can both numb pain and increase joy, and he began partying with the sort of insatiable lust for life that you’d expect out of a formerly metal man who had recently discovered his own mortality. (He’s not alone here.)

All signs point to Gronkowski being done with football—if not now, then soon. He can still play at a high level, but there’s been talk of his wanting to retire dating back to last offseason, and it’s easy to understand why it could happen. He has suffered injuries to virtually every part of his body: two forearm fractures, a torn ACL and MCL, at least three rounds of back surgery, multiple concussions, and an ankle sprain that required surgery. The same body that has made Gronk a legend for the greatest dynasty in the sport’s history seems perpetually bound to break.

If there was ever a way for Gronk to go out, it was with Sunday night’s game. Gronkowski was meant for quick, brilliant flashes, not a sustained burn. He was made for transcendent moments, and what’s a better moment than separating from everybody to all but clinch a Super Bowl?

So far as I can tell, 90 percent of the people from New England fall into one of two categories: those currently wearing Tom Brady jerseys, and those currently wearing Rob Gronkowski jerseys. (The other 10 percent are newborns or people who are not allowed to wear Patriots jerseys at work.) As evidence, here’s a picture I took at a recent social gathering of New Englanders in Georgia:

Which category someone falls into reveals all you need to know about them as a person. Brady jersey wearers believe in order, that life has a right side and a wrong side. This jersey lets the world know: They believe they make better life choices than you. Gronk jersey wearers don’t care if they wake up in hell Tuesday morning so long as Monday night was worth it. This jersey is an advertisement: They will shotgun the worst alcohol you have on your person. (Even if it’s in a glass bottle, they’ll shotgun it.)

Outside of Bill Belichick, Brady and Gronk are the two predominant faces of the late-era Patriots dynasty, and they are perfectly dichotomous. Brady’s major public appearance comes at the annual Met Gala. Gronk’s comes on a Caribbean party cruise. Brady was a late-round draft pick whose meticulous attention to detail made him an all-timer. Gronk is an obvious world-beater who dominates the game by virtue of his pure physical force. Brady eats only foods approved by a new-agey nutritional system he claims will keep him in peak physical condition longer than any football player in league history. Gronk has probably consumed at least 15 Four Lokos (that’s 60 Lokos!) within the past calendar year, and might retire before turning 30.

Gronk is also very different from the other greats who came at his position before him. He’s one of four announced or presumptive Hall of Famers to play tight end during their prime this century, with the others being Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, and Jason Witten. Gonzalez played 17 seasons and missed only two games, finishing second in career receptions (1,325) among all players, including wide receivers. Gates has played 16 seasons, all with the same team, and holds the all-time record for touchdowns by a tight end (116). Witten played 15 years for the Cowboys, missing only one game (during his rookie season) and making 11 Pro Bowls.

Gronkowski, on the other hand, has played just nine seasons, and has played all 16 games in a season only twice. He’s missed more games in his nine years in the league (29) than Gonzalez, Gates, and Witten did in their 48 combined seasons (23). But his highs are higher than anybody else’s. Gronkowski racked up 1,327 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns in 2011, figures that would’ve been career bests for the other three. He’s one of just two Super Bowl–era tight ends to lead the league in touchdown receptions outright. (Jimmy Graham did it 2013, and Vernon Davis tied for the league lead in 2009.) Gronk has as many 1,000-yard seasons (four) as Gonzalez and Witten and more than Gates, and was named first-team All-Pro (four times) more than either Witten (two) or Gates (three) were.

Gonzalez, Gates, and Witten represent an image of the tight end position based on consistency. They were guys who were always there, week in and week out, season after season after season. They were sure-handed security blankets for every QB with whom they played. Gronk represents an image of the tight end position based on freakishness. He hasn’t always been there for Brady, but when he has he’s created problems that no defense could answer. He elevated New England from great to unstoppable.

It’s been hard for non-Patriots fans to find anything about the team enjoyable over the past, I don’t know, two decades. But I’ve always had a soft spot for Gronk. It’s never seemed like he’s put on airs, and he’s never bought into the concept that he needs to change his personality to fit in with a franchise whose party line on personalities is to not have one. Gronkowski could have been a dominant force on any team, but it’s best for the long-term appreciation of his skill set that he was a Patriot. Anywhere else, he might have been another flash-in-the-pan athletic marvel who came and went. With New England, his unbelievable plays came in conference championship games and Super Bowl after Super Bowl.

And that’s why Sunday night was the perfect swan song for this cyborg, if he does choose to retire. Spectacular gridlock prevented regular humans from achieving any sort of success on the field. Then Gronk made a play that only Gronk could make, and the Patriots were once again champions. He’s still a notch above most of the league, but I have no qualms with Gronk listening to the human pains of his robot body. We don’t need to see anything more to know that he’s a legend, and this machine could use 15,000 Four Lokos.

That’s right: 60,000 total Lokos.