BOSTON (CBS) — Growing up in the Boston area and working in the greatest sports city since the early 1980s, I’ve been lucky enough to have been able to watch and interview some of the all-time greats in Boston sports history.
In hockey, I got to chat with Bobby Orr, Ray Bourque, Cam Neely, Phil Esposito, Zdeno Chara, and Patrice Bergeron. In basketball, it was John Havlicek, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson, Jo Jo White, Dave Cowens, Cedric Maxwell, Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce.
On the diamond, I talked shop with Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Rice, Fred Lynn, Luis Tiant, Carlton Fisk, Dwight Evans, Dennis Eckersley, Roger Clemens, Wade Boggs, Nomar Garciaparra, Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Pedro Martinez, Jason Varitek, Curt Schilling, Jon Lester and Mookie Betts. And on the football field, it was Doug Flutie, John Hannah, Andre Tippett, Steve Nelson, Mike Haynes, Steve Grogan, Russ Francis, Ben Coates, Drew Bledsoe, Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest, Richard Seymour, Adam Vinatieri, Matt Light, Randy Moss, Troy Brown, Ty Law, Stephen Gostkowski, Wes Welker, Devin McCourty, Dont’a Hightower, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, and Tom Brady.
Out of all of these greats, only a few find themselves in the argument for greatest to ever play their position: Orr (defensemen), Neely (power forward), Bird (forward), Fisk (catcher), Pedro (starting pitcher), Papi (DH), Hannah(O-linemen), Vinatieri (kicker), Gronkowski (tight end), and Brady (QB).
Rob Gronkowski was everything you would want in an NFL tight end and more. We know the physical skills; he was a 6-foot-6 inch, 265 pound behemoth with massive hands that could catch just about anything thrown his way. His pure size demanded a double team, and he was a nightmare to cover for any opposing defense. He also became a great run-blocking tight end that turned him into a great all-around tight end.
The numbers are Hall of Fame worthy:
Regular season: 9 seasons, 115 games, 521 receptions, 7,861 yards, 15.1 yards per catch, 79 receiving TDs, 1 rushing TD
Postseason: 16 games, 81 receptions, 1,163 yards, 14.4 yards per catch, 12 receiving TDs
Gronkowski was a 5-time Pro Bowler, 4-time first team All-Pro, leads the Patriots in TD receptions and is third all-time in TD receptions for tight ends. Most importantly, he was a two-time Super Bowl winner.
But there was so much more surrounding the life and career of Rob Gronkowski…
– Gronk overcame arguably more injuries than any elite player in NFL history. He entered the league with back issues, missing an entire season at Arizona due to disc surgery. He also had back surgery in the NFL due to a vertebral fracture. He broke his forearm twice, tore ACLs and MCLs in his knees, suffered high ankle sprains, had hamstring problems and even battled concussions. This past season, he had a really hard time overcoming back and leg issues.
– I argue that no player in the history of the NFL was hit harder than Gronk, and seemingly several times per game. The reason? He couldn’t be covered in his prime due to his size and his hands. It made him almost impossible to bring down. You couldn’t hit him high and if you hit him low, you risked a penalty or a head injury. Gronk talked about how hard it was to wake up on Monday mornings after games because he so sore. Mentally, that had to take a toll on a player who loved the game of football.
– His joy of playing football left a huge impact in the Patriots locker room. Gronk would bring it every day, and he did so with a smile on his face and a joke locked and loaded. That was all part of his passion for the game, a huge intangible to bring to a team. Having a player that loves every single day is infectious. Trash-talking, encouragement, laughter, it’s all part of making the grind-it-out days/practices a little easier to bear.
– Everything about Gronk was unique. His celebratory spike was different than anyone else’s and he loved it. He didn’t do it in high school or college because he was afraid to, but started it here during his rookie season. He didn’t go full “Gronk Spike” until his second year in New England and then it took off, reaching the legendary status it now holds today.
– He also seemingly loved every minute that he played the game. He brought us laughter, trash-talk, and phrases from “We’re going to the ‘Ship” to “Yo Soy Fiesta” to “Who’s getting wild tonight?” He brought it all the time.
– He was just as wild and had just as much (if not more) fun off the field too. From his party bus to hosting cruises to ALWAYS sharing a few minutes with fans, Gronk always had a smile on his face — and so did the people around him.
– What gets lost in all of this is Gronkowski’s football IQ. Ask anyone around the Patriots organization and they’ll tell you his football intelligence was “off the charts.” He knew the game and the nuances of it inside-out, one of the many reasons Tom Brady loved him so much. Brady loves players that can get on the same page with him, players that know when to turn a certain way because of what the coverage was giving them. Gronk was able to do that. Plus, he was a reliable red zone target; throw it near him and Gronk would catch it. Gronk, like Brady, had the physical and mental part of the game down to a science.
– Gronk also had a tremendous impact on children. Who wouldn’t love him? He was simply a big kid with his personality and that infectious smile. He acted like a kid a lot, but more importantly, he would work tirelessly to help sick children. Whether it was Make A Wish, Boston Children’s Hospital, Dana Farber, Buzz For Kids, etc, he couldn’t and wouldn’t say no.
If someone needed something, Rob Gronkowski was there to help. And he didn’t need attention brought to it. No one had a bigger heart.
– Perhaps the best compliment that was ever given to Gronk came from Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who said, “In nine years that I have known Rob Gronkowski, I have never known him to have a bad day.”
There you go. In my opinion (again, just my opinion), Rob Gronkowski was as unique a football player as I have ever seen and the greatest all-around tight end to ever play in the National Football League.
What makes him so unique is the fact that was he was a pleasure to cover and watch, each and every day.