In his statement commemorating Rob Gronkowski’s retirement from the NFL, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft said he’s already counting down the days before Gronkowski is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
His wait should be as brief as the NFL rulebook allows.
Only two NFL players (legendary running backs Jim Brown and Gale Sayers) have received busts in Canton in their first year of eligibility without ever playing a game in their 30s, according to Elias Sports Bureau, but Gronkowski proved time and again throughout his dominant nine-season stay in Foxboro that he deserves to join that uber-exclusive club.
Gronkowski, who announced his retirement Sunday afternoon at age 29, didn’t revolutionize the tight end position, but he played it better than anyone in history, using his 6-foot-6, 268-pound frame to wreak untold havoc on opposing defenses.
When healthy, he was practically uncoverable. And when he wasn’t posterizing defensive backs and blowing past linebackers, he was throwing his weight around as the best blocking tight end of his era. His list of career accolades speaks for itself:
Not included in that tally: Gronkowski also caught more touchdown passes over the course of his career than any player in football, regardless of position. He hauled in 79 from 2010 to 2018, five more than second-place Antonio Brown. Jimmy Graham (71) and Antonio Gates (57) are the only other tight ends with 50-plus.
Speaking of exclusive company, only two players in history had more touchdown receptions before their 30th birthday than Gronkowski did, per ESPN Sports & Info: Hall of Famers Jerry Rice and Randy Moss.
Simply put, Gronkowski was a transcendent, generational talent the likes of which the Patriots — and the NFL as a whole — might never see again. And though the various back and ankle and knee and arm injuries fast-tracked his retirement, diminished his overall numbers, hurt his typically unshakable morale and hamstrung the Patriots’ offense at times, there’s no sense of squandered potential when looking back at his time in New England.
He was the best. End of story.
In his nine seasons with the Patriots — three of which were injury-shortened, two severely so — Gronkowski made five Pro Bowl teams, was a first-team All-Pro four times, had big games in three Super Bowls and provided countless iconic moments, both on the field and off.
From “Yo Soy Fiesta” to throwing Sergio Brown out of the club, destroying Sean Davis in Pittsburgh to putting the Patriots on his back in Denver, shotgunning beers in a Minions hat at the Super Bowl parade to beating his hometown Buffalo Bills for his cherished 69th touchdown, Gronkowski’s place in Pats lore was long ago secured.
And while his final, injury-plagued season represented a step back from his All-Pro 2017 campaign, Gronkowski still managed to deliver once the calendar flipped to January.
His divisional-round performance against the Los Angeles Chargers was a masterclass in run-blocking, with a vintage 25-yard rumble mixed in for good measure.
At Arrowhead Stadium in the AFC Championship Game, Gronkowski converted one third-and-long in the final minute of regulation and another in overtime to help send the Patriots to their second straight Super Bowl. He finished that game with six catches for 79 yards, marks he’d reached just three times during the regular season.
Gronkowski caught another six passes on seven targets for 87 yards in Super Bowl LIII, including two on the game’s lone touchdown drive. The latter — a 29-yard bomb between three Los Angeles Rams defenders that set up Sony Michel’s game-winning score one play later — proved to be the final reception of his unrivaled Patriots tenure.
“When it comes to crunch time,” a smiling Gronkowski said after that game, championship T-shirt stretched over his shoulder pads, “I always find a way.”
Gronkowski called his final season the most satisfying of his career. It was a fitting end for one of the NFL’s all-time greats.
Thumbnail photo via Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY Sports Images