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A Gronking to remember

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A Gronking to remember (AP file photo/Stephen Senne)

A New England Patriots legend has decided to hang it up.

Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski has announced that he will be retiring from football after nine seasons in the NFL. He made his decision public via Instagram on March 24.

Despite a playing career that lasted less than a decade and featured numerous extended periods of injury, Gronk’s legacy is undoubtedly secure. He will take his place among the best to ever play the game, with numbers that ensure a Hall of Fame jacket despite his truncated time in the league.

Let’s start with those numbers. Few have dominated the stat sheet like Gronkowski did in his prime. His final tallies include 79 touchdown catches (third all-time among tight ends), 7,861 yards (seventh) and 521 receptions. He remains the only tight end to lead the league in TD catches in a season (17 in 2011). He falls short of some milestones due to the relative brevity of his career, but it’s tough to dispute his pound-for-pound impact. He was recognized for his regular season work, making four All-NFL First Teams and five Pro Bowls.

But when it comes to the postseason, well … that’s a different story.

Simply put, Gronk is one of the greatest performers in NFL playoff history. In 16 playoff games – the equivalent of one full season – his line of 81 catches for 1,163 yards and 12 TDs is among the very best postseason resumes the league has ever seen. Those 12 TD catches are second only to the legendary Jerry Rice on the playoff rolls.

But really, Gronk was more than the numbers.

He was a ferocious blocker for his entire career, though that part of his game really didn’t gain much attention until the later years, when his offensive output wasn’t as garish and his injury struggles kept getting in the way. Still, the fact that he was both an offensive unicorn AND a valued part of New England’s pass protection is awfully impressive.

The connection between Gronk and quarterback Tom Brady warrants attention as well. Few QB-tight end duos have ever been as productive as these two; their 78 TDs is second only to Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates as a QB-TE combo. For nine years, Gronk was Brady’s best weapon and safety valve; the connection was as good as it gets on a football field.

And of course, there’s the wild side. Party boy Gronk. Yo soy fiesta Gronk. The shirtless, Bud Light-guzzling lunatic whose wide-eyed guilelessness and nigh-infinite joie de vivre made him inherently, universally likable – even a lot of people who despised the Patriots have trouble disliking the guy.

Obviously, health concerns are largely to blame for Gronk’s too-soon departure from the game. But he missed multiple games in multiple seasons, suffering a litany of injuries to almost every conceivable body part over the years. His unprecedented size and speed worked against him to an extent; the only way to stop him was via methods that could (and sometimes did) lead to him getting hurt. The latter end of his career especially saw his body break down on him, though the Patriots did an admirable job of trying to find ways to keep him healthy so they could unleash him in the playoffs.

So what happens next for Gronk, this goofy weirdo whose physical gifts combined with a deep and abiding love of football to result in a guy who had more fun playing the game than anyone else of his era? It’ll be interesting to see. Some people think he’s going to try to become an action movie star. Others think he’s going to really let fly with the partying for a while. A few think that he might find a home in the broadcasting booth. Still others think that he’ll wind up coming back to the game before long.

(As for what I think? I’m in the camp that sees him making the leap to professional wrestling. Yeah, I’m calling it right here – within the next 12 months, Gronk will be hoisting aloft a belt as champion of one of WWE’s many, many divisions.)

In the end, it’s tough to see someone like this walk away. But I get it – the game has taken an even harsher toll on his body than most. He’s made millions of dollars and he’s still relatively healthy and he’s young – he won’t turn 30 until May. Why not cash in your chips and live it up some other way?

Fare thee well, friend. We’ll miss you. The past decade truly has given us a Gronking to remember.

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