By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — We are all very fortunate to have witnessed the career of one Robert James Gronkowski.
That is, quite simply, the only takeaway there is from Sunday’s surprising but not shocking news that the tight end has decided to retire from the game of football at the ripe age of 29. No matter what Gronkowski decided, his choice would have been surprising, but everyone in the football world — and certainly, everybody in New England — has been prepared to hear either choice for some time now.
And so, after taking nearly two full months to make up his mind, Gronkowski is walking away.
Now, the football cognoscenti will debate about whether the four-time First Team All-Pro and five-time Pro Bowler will deserve a Hall of Fame induction in his first year of eligibility. Locals will ponder and debate whether Gronkowski may get coaxed out of retirement, either in the summer or the fall.
While neither of those questions can yet be answered, what cannot be denied at this point in time is that we have all witnessed one of the most thoroughly dominating careers the sport of football has ever seen.
Yes, certain Hall of Famers have amassed more stats. Many tight ends have played more seasons in the NFL. But nobody has ever played the position like Rob Gronkowski.
A player of Gronkowski’s size is not supposed to be fast enough to burn past safeties.
A player with Gronkowski’s speed is not supposed to be strong enough to overpower and outmuscle linebackers.
A player of Gronkowski’s size is certainly not supposed to have the hands and ball skills of an elite wide receiver.
And a player with Gronkowski’s pass-catching prowess is not supposed to be capable or invested in being one of the fiercest blockers to ever play the position.
Gronkowski, as we know, was able to do it all, and he was able to do all of it at the highest possible level.
Among the 131 games, the 600 catches, the 92 touchdowns, the two Super Bowl wins, the numerous playoff victories and even some playoff losses, there are certain moments that stand out.
There was the spinning, one-handed catch in traffic against the Broncos.
“That was one of the best catches I’ve ever seen,” said Tom Brady, who’s seen a dynamite catch or two in his day. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”
There was his touchdown vs. the Bills in 2017, a catch that rivaled the snare vs. the Broncos.
He once threw Sergio Brown out the club. He once made the entire Redskins defense look like a struggling Pop Warner team. Ditto for the Colts. He marched a Buckingham Palace guard — the only touchdown celebration he ever planned ahead of time. He scored a touchdown on his first-ever NFL catch, in his first-ever NFL game.
His nickname was perfect.
He spiked the hell out of so many damn footballs.
In Super Bowl XLIX, he ended up in man coverage against linebacker K.J. Wright on the outside. Everyone on the Patriots’ roster and coaching staff knew what would come next:
If he was on a football field, he could be found dragging fully grown men around that football field. He survived a flip onto his neck that looked like it could’ve ended his career before it ever fully got going.
In two playoff losses in particular — the 2015 AFC Championship Game in Denver, and Super Bowl LII against the Eagles — Gronkowski was simply superhuman for stretches. Brady threw to Gronk five times on the opening drive of the second half of that Super Bowl; Gronkowski caught four of them, picking up 68 yards and scoring a touchdown. He’d catch another touchdown, too, finishing the game with nine receptions for 116 yards and two scores. (The last-gasp Hail Mary on the final snap was a deep ball intended for Gronkowski; it nearly worked.)
In the 2015 AFC title game loss in Denver, the Patriots trailed by eight in the final minutes. On a fourth-and-10, Gronkowski came up with a 40-yard reception. On a fourth-and-goal a few plays later, Brady threw to Gronkowski for the touchdown to cut Denver’s lead to two. Brady threw to Julian Edelman on the two-point try; it was intercepted.
Gronkowski was open.
(He finished that game with eight catches for 144 yards and the touchdown.)
He made the impossible seem possible. And he did it on a near-weekly basis.
And, after dealing with multiple back surgeries and multiple forearm surgeries and coming back from a torn knee, at the end of a season where his physical dominance was clearly not where it had been for the bulk of his career, Gronkowski still had something special left in the tank.
AFC Championship Game, in Kansas City: two absolutely mammoth catches — one in the fourth quarter, one in overtime on a third-and-10 — to help get his team to a Super Bowl.
And in that Super Bowl? Well. History:
That diving catch by Gronkowski put the Patriots on the Rams’ 2-yard line, in a 3-3 game. Sony Michel plunged into the end zone on the very next play — with Gronkowski blocking, of course — to score the touchdown that would prove to be the game-winner.
It was a perfect bookend for the career of a perfect football player.
Of course, over the next six months or so, folks will wonder and speculate that maybe, just maybe Gronkowski is retiring now to preserve his body, so that he can suit up for the Patriots around Thanksgiving and help the team to another Super Bowl run. One more.
That, though, might be an unrealistic and unfair view. For a player who has both accomplished so much and endured so much as Gronkowski, the end should mean the end. And though he’s walking away from the sport before his 30th birthday, and though he missed essentially a season-and-a-half due to injuries, there’s frankly no way to feel cheated or shorted on what Gronkowski has delivered over the course of his nine-year career.
Everyone who witnessed it was fortunate to have done so. And nobody will see anything quite like it ever again.