Rob Gronkowski started the 2018 season on top. That’s not a metaphor. Last summer he rode Shaq’s shoulders in a dance-off at a Steve Aoki concert.
One year to the day after ESPN posted the above video on YouTube and a month and a half after his third Super Bowl victory in nine seasons, Gronk announced his retirement on Instagram on Sunday.
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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, drafted in 2010, finishes his career as a New England hero. After his worst regular season since he was a rookie, Gronk turned it on for one last playoff run. In overtime against Kansas City in the AFC championship game, he converted a third-and-10 to put New England in the red zone and set up the eventual game-winning score. In the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LIII, he caught the 29-yard pass from Tom Brady that put the Patriots at the 2-yard line and set up the only touchdown they needed to win the championship
Gronk’s heroics last postseason were a brief throwback to his peak form in his earlier years, when he was on the short list of the most unstoppable pass catchers of all time (not tight ends—pass catchers). His size, speed, and athleticism made him a prototypical tight end—too big for cornerbacks to cover, too fast for linebackers to catch. With the exception of a few physical defensive backs like Aqib Talib and Kam Chancellor, not many players ever matched up with Gronk one-on-one and emerged unscathed. In five of Gronk’s first six seasons in the NFL, he scored double-digit touchdowns, including a league-leading 17 in 2011. He notched an astonishing 79 receiving touchdowns in 115 games—tied with Marvin Harrison for the fifth-highest ever through a player’s first 115 games and behind only Jerry Rice, Randy Moss, Lance Alworth, and Art Powell. He was a Pro Bowler five times, a first-team All-Pro four times, and the 2014 Comeback Player of the Year. He played in four Super Bowls and won three.
Gronk was often called for ticky-tacky offensive pass interference for the crime of being bigger than the people who were guarding him. Gronk was so big that the only way for defensive backs to tackle him was to aim for his legs.
“You gotta hit him low, man—hit him in his knees,” Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said on SportsCenter in 2016. “That’s the best chance you have of hitting him. You gotta take his legs out or hold on and wait for everybody, wait for the gang to come on and gang tackle him.”
That strategy spawned a CVS-receipt-length list of injuries for Gronk. He suffered multiple back, ankle, knee, forearm, and head injuries in college and the pros that kept him off the field for long stretches, hobbled him when he played at the tail end of his career, and required a lot of surgeries, even by NFL standards. It’s rare for players with that injury history to retire on their own terms, let alone retire after playing an integral part in a Super Bowl run. That likely cements Gronk’s status as the greatest at his position.
When healthy, Gronk was dominant—bordering on uncoverable—but healthy Gronk was hard to come by in the final third of his career, when the Patriots clearly tried to maximize his playoff potential by limiting the routes that exposed him the most. But even when Belichick kept Gronk in the garage, he could rev the engine when necessary. Gronk’s 2017 Week 15 performance against Pittsburgh with the no. 1 seed in the AFC on the line, when Brady found him on three consecutive plays in the final two minutes for three catches, three first downs, exactly 69 yards, and a two-point conversion after a Dion Lewis touchdown, is one of the finest stretches of his—or anybody’s—career.
Not only was Gronk as talented as any tight end to ever play, but he was also, without a doubt, the most fun. He bought a horse that nearly won the Belmont, starred in a show for Shark Week, and starred in a WWE Battle Royal—all in those last couple of offseasons. Only God knows what he’ll do now that he doesn’t have to answer to Bill Belichick.