On the field in the moments after the New England Patriots won their latest Super Bowl, Rob Gronkowski stood -- bounced, more accurately -- amid a gaggle of similarly-giddy Gronks. This is the preferred way to consider Gronkowski, football's favorite frat boy. He was heading to another party. Given the years of photos with porn stars and kittens, the erotic literature he inspired, the dance-off he once had with a teammate's young daughter before an earlier Super Bowl, the kooky Tide Pods ads in which he announced "I'm big and awesome," this is how we want to imagine every day in his world. It is certainly the image that will outlive his football career now that it is over.
But a few days before the Patriots arrived in Atlanta this year for Super Bowl LIII, Gronkowski offered a sobering -- that word has perhaps never before been used in conjunction with his name -- reminder that while he is indisputably big and awesome, that has not insulated him from the toll of a football life played with the same abandon he brought to his personal pursuits.
"You go up, you go down," he told reporters. "You can take some serious hits. To tell you the truth, just try and imagine getting hit all the time and trying to be where you want to be every day in life. It's tough, it's difficult. To take hits to the thigh, take hits to your head. Abusing your body isn't what your brain wants. When your body is abused, it can bring down your mood. You've got to be able to deal with that, too, throughout the season. You gotta be able to deal with that in the games."
Until this season, Gronkowski was able to deal with it -- with everything -- in games. When he was drafted with the 42nd overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft, and the Patriots subsequently selected another tight end, Aaron Hernandez, in that same draft, the confused reaction among many observers was that the Patriots didn't even really use tight ends that much. And then Gronkowski -- and, for a short while, Hernandez, before his career and life came to a horrific close -- changed everything. The Patriots' offense. The way we think elite tight ends should be able to perform. The fun factor in watching the Patriots play.
It was pure pleasure to watch Gronkowski charging through a defense, like an overgrown Labrador chasing a frisbee. He was enormous (6-foot-6, 268 pounds) and fast and nimble, blessed with hands soft enough to make impossible catches -- he prefers the one-handers -- and enough strength to throw hapless defenders "out of the club," as he famously put it. That he did it all on an offense that rarely had a plethora of receiving talent merely underscored his importance.
The Patriots were most devastating when Gronkowski was available. And when he was not, or when he was diminished, they suffered dramatically. In 2014, as the Patriots brought Gronkowski back slowly from a knee injury that ended his previous season, the entire offense teetered precipitously -- so much so that, for the first time, Tom Brady's decline was first proposed. By Week 5, Gronkowski was ready for a full workload. Before he left for that game, he told one of his brothers that he planned to make Brady look like Brady again. Six receptions for 100 yards and a touchdown later, and the Patriots were back on track to their fourth Super Bowl title. Watching Gronkowski play was like watching Brady, or Peyton Manning or Ed Reed or Lawrence Taylor. They could simply take over games and terrify their opponents. You knew, instantly, that you were seeing someone reset the bar for their position.
Statistically, Gronkowski did not do that. He finished with 521 receptions for 7,861 yards and 79 touchdowns, and as impressive as those numbers are, they do not adequately reflect his dominance. He was named first-team All-Pro four times. When he was healthy -- a gigantic caveat throughout his career -- he was a matchup nightmare. Opponents had no good options at their disposal -- linebackers, safeties and corners all failed to corral him at different moments -- and the Patriots exploited the mismatch, using Gronkowski in the traditional tight end spot next to an offensive tackle, in the slot and flexed out wide. Newly-elected Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez provides the statistical model against which tight ends will be judged. In 17 seasons, Gonzalez had 1,325 receptions and 111 touchdowns, dwarfing Gronkowski. Gronkowski may provide the stylistic model, though. He was a more complete tight end than Gonzalez, more complete than anyone of his era.
In February, the Boston Herald's Patriots columnist, Karen Guregian, polled five members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee about Gronkowski. The consensus is that he is certainly a future Hall of Famer, though perhaps not one who will go in on his first ballot. The only knock against him is the relative brevity of his career -- he played just nine seasons, and many of them were impacted by innumerable injuries. He had already had back surgery in college, and since then, there have been many more, to his back and forearm, knee and ankle. The body armor he wore to play made him look like a superhero. But it was also an indication of just how vulnerable his body was becoming.
It was difficult to watch Gronkowski, 29, for much of this season. His body was betraying him. Defenses were able to take him away. His production plummeted. In 13 games, he caught just 47 passes, an average of three per game. He had just three touchdown receptions. After openly speculating about retirement last offseason, Gronkowski was receding right before our eyes. The Miami Miracle play, when Gronkowski stumbled as the last line of defense and never came close to making the game-saving tackle at the end of the Dolphins' lateral-driven walk-off touchdown against New England in Week 14, was a brutal reminder that time comes for every NFL player, and Gronkowski's time was fast approaching.
Delightfully, the playoffs gave us a renaissance, one last bit by which to remember Gronkowski. Against the Los Angeles Chargers in the Divisional Round, he was a road grader, a blocking force for the running game, demonstrating the old-school version of tight end play. This was always an under-the-radar part of his game, noted by the talent evaluators who appreciated that Gronkowski still put the same passion into blocking that he did into receiving. And then against the Chiefs and the Rams, there were critical catches again, including one in the Super Bowl deep down the left seam, with two defenders on his back while he dove for a perfectly placed pass. It set up the only touchdown of the game. It was a play Gronkowski has made hundreds of times before. It was as beautiful as ever.
It is rare for professional athletes to leave on high notes. They are almost always diminished in some way, having lost a step or their final game. This was as high a note as Gronkowski could hope for. His body held on just long enough for him to grasp that last pass. He got another ring. And another party.
"Yo soy fiesta!" Gronkowski proclaimed early in his career, when asked by a bilingual reporter if he would celebrate a victory.
Gronkowski was a party. And like the best parties, we'll be talking about this one for a long time.