There have been a host of terrific nicknames in football history, but has there ever been one better than Gronk?
Yes, it’s simply the abbreviation of a last name, but in this case it seemed to symbolize the essence of the player: a no-nonsense syllable as forceful as a crunching block to seal the end on a sweep, as dynamic as a leaping touchdown grab over a hapless defender.
Gronk even sounds whimsical or playful, which could not be more fitting.
The man behind the nickname, New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, announced his retirement on Sunday. At 6-foot-6 and nearly 270 pounds, he always seemed larger than life, but nine years in the N.F.L. will cut anyone down to size. After he had surgeries to his back, arm and knee, even a great nickname couldn’t save Gronk, who gingerly, and wisely, walked away weeks before his 30th birthday.
Everyone from his teammates to the Patriots’ hierarchy hurriedly lobbed praise at one of the best tight ends to play the game. And a league lacking in colorful characters suddenly has one fewer.
Wide receiver Julian Edelman referred to Gronkowski as, “the other goat” (as in, greatest of all time). Coach Bill Belichick celebrated Gronkowski’s “unmistakably positive energy.” Tom Brady, in an Instagram post directed at Gronkowski, said the Patriots were “almost unbeatable when you were on the field.”
Indeed, Gronkowski transformed the position, an achievement that will one day make him a certain Hall of Fame inductee. It wasn’t just Gronkowski’s uncommon mix of size and speed; he played with an inimitable combination of acrobatic athleticism and reckless abandon.
With Gronkowski scoring 79 touchdowns in his career, it’s hard to single out one that typified his style of play, but a 19-yard catch-and-run against the Kansas City Chiefs in 2011, Gronkowski’s second season, revealed the kind of mettle he brought to every snap.
Lined up in the backfield, Gronkowski grabbed a 1-yard pass from Brady, then stormed up the right sideline, where he evaded three tacklers and vaulted toward the goal line. While in the air, a low hit flipped him upside down, but he still kept his forward momentum, landing precariously in the end zone on the back of his neck. Gronk wobbled to his feet, then performed his signature spiking of the football.
The Patriots won 34-3.
And then there were the off-the-field antics. He danced on the field and on concert stages, chugged beers thrown to him during victory parades, impishly mugged for cameras behind the back of President Obama when the Patriots were feted at the White House. There were television and movie appearances, major roles in pro wrestling extravaganzas, and party after party where Gronk always seemed to materialize in character as the eternal goofball.
Along the way, Gronkowski’s colorful personality brought life to the button-down Patriots and N.F.L.
That kind of energy will be hard to replace. With pun intended, today the N.F.L. feels a little deflated.
Gronkowski’s retirement may also signal another beginning of the end for the Patriots’ ever-expanding reign. It always seems like folly to forecast the impending demise of the Brady-Belichick Patriots. But Gronkowski was unlike any other tight end, and he leaves a gaping hole for New England.
It is true that the Patriots’ offense is notable for how it can morph week to week and season to season. Still, stellar tight end play has been a constant to Belichick’s success, and in Gronkowski, the coach had a weapon who could be a devastating blocker, a third-down possession receiver and a downfield threat mixed into one.
Good luck finding another talent like that before Brady’s career concludes.
Gronkowski’s unmatched value was on full display in his last football game, the Super Bowl against the Los Angeles Rams. The Patriots’ offense was hopelessly out of sync as drive after drive stalled short of scoring. To provide stability, New England turned to its running game, with Gronkowski’s punishing blocks often leading the way.
Then, near the midpoint of the fourth quarter, with the game tied, the Patriots ran the same play three times in a row. It was primarily a pass play, but because Gronkowski was one of two tight ends in the huddle before each snap, the Rams had to defend the threat of a rushing attempt by leaving their base defense on the field. That meant one fewer defensive back to cover Gronkowski if he dashed downfield.
Which is what happened. On the last of the three plays, Gronkowski shifted into the slot like a wide receiver and the Patriots had the mismatch they sought when Rams linebacker Cory Littleton trotted over — at the last second — to cover Gronkowski.
As he had so many times before, Brady lofted a precise pass into a small opening in the defense and Gronkowski dove to make the catch inside the Rams’ 5-yard line.
On the next play, Gronkowski sealed the left end with a powerful block on defensive end John Franklin-Myers, and running back Sony Michel dashed just off Gronkowski’s right hip for the go-ahead score in the Patriots’ 13-3 victory.
Gronkowski briefly celebrated with teammates in the end zone after the score. Then he slowly, and somewhat laboriously, jogged off the field.
About 20 minutes later, the Patriots were draped in confetti at midfield with music blaring along a makeshift stage. Belichick turned at one point and yelled, “Gronk!”
Duly summoned, Gronkowski grinned at his coach, who smiled back and said: “You’re a hell of a player.”
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