Gronk retires from the NFL; parties during Spring Break

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Kevin Duffy
Boston Herald

Rob Gronkowski scored touchdowns at an impossible rate, rumbled through defensive backfields that were ill-equipped to deal with him, shrugged off gang tackles, racked up Super Bowls, and tossed a guy out the club.

El fue fiesta.

The 29-year-old tight end, a truly unrivaled force throughout the second part of this Patriots dynasty, announced his retirement this afternoon.

“I will be retiring from the game of football today,” Gronkowski wrote on Instagram. “I am so grateful for the opportunity that coach (Bill) Belichick and Mr. (Robert) Kraft gave me when drafting my silliness in 2010. My life experiences over the last nine years have been amazing both on and off the field.”

In a statement, Kraft lauded Gronkowski’s “youthful exuberance.”

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It all started at 20 years old on stage at the NFL draft when my dream came true, and now here I am about to turn 30 in a few months with a decision I feel is the biggest of my life so far. I will be retiring from the game of football today. I am so grateful for the opportunity that Mr. Kraft and Coach Belichick gave to me when drafting my silliness in 2010. My life experiences over the last 9 years have been amazing both on and off the field. The people I have meet, the relationships I have built, the championships I have been apart of, I just want to thank the whole New England Patriots organization for every opportunity I have been giving and learning the great values of life that I can apply to mine. Thank you to all of Pats Nation around the world for the incredible support since I have been apart of this 1st class organization. Thank you for everyone accepting who I am and the dedication I have put into my work to be the best player I could be. But now its time to move forward and move forward with a big smile knowing that the New England Patriots Organization, Pats Nation, and all my fans will be truly a big part of my heart for rest of my life. It was truly an incredible honor to play for such a great established organization and able to come in to continue and contribute to keep building success. To all my current and past teammates, thank you for making each team every year special to be apart of. I will truly miss you guys. Cheers to all who have been part of this journey, cheers to the past for the incredible memories, and a HUGE cheers to the uncertain of whats next.

A post shared by Rob Gronkowski (@gronk) on

“In the nine years that I have known Rob Gronkowski, I have never known him to have a bad day,” Kraft said.

“In the ultimate team sport, Rob was a great, great teammate,” Belichick said. “His production spoke for itself, but his daily attitude, unmistakably positive energy wherever he went and toward whoever he touched will never be forgotten.”

Gronkowski’s decision comes about two months after the Patriots’ Super Bowl LIII victory, the third of Gronkowski’s career. As frustrating as his final season may have been, he delivered — as always — in so many of the crucial moments. His diving 29-yard reception down the seam was the biggest offensive play of Super Bowl LIII. Two weeks before that, in an epic AFC Championship, Gronkowski fended off Chiefs safety Eric Berry to corral a 25-yard reception down the left sideline on a third-and-5 as the final seconds of regulation ticked away.

“It was one of the sweeter victories, definitely, in my career,” Gronkowski said after the Patriots pulled the upset in Kansas City.

Ten years ago, Belichick nailed the scouting report when he moved up two spots to draft Gronkowski at No. 42 overall.

“Rob Gronkowski, certainly an interesting player. Excellent size, very well thought of down there by Coach (Mike) Stoops and his staff,” Belichick said following the 2010 Draft. “He’s kind of a fun loving guy who enjoys having a good time, but he plays like that, too. He plays with a good attitude. He’s aggressive. He seems to be having fun out there and he was a good playmaker for Arizona.”

Gronk’s game-changing ability was evident from the beginning. Linebacker Dane Fletcher showed up to 2010 rookie minicamp as an undrafted free agent out of Montana State, unsure of what to expect in the big leagues. He was bewildered after a few practices.

“I came in the same year as Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and they were unbelievable,” Fletcher recalled. “I look at these two guys. They’re not even first-round picks. I hadn’t really heard of either one of them, and they’re nothing short of phenomenal. So I was definitely nervous to see what everyone else (in the NFL) looked like.”

Not quite like Gronk.

Fletcher and Gronkowski struck up a friendship and decided to live together to start their NFL careers. They moved into a small apartment in Foxboro because, as Fletcher said, they were “both cheap.”

While living out their NFL dreams, they found joy in “little, dumb things” as roommates. They played a ton of mini-basketball. They’d swing by Julian Edelman’s house (he lived with Ryan Wendell and Matthew Slater) and pelt the back window with snowballs.

“They’d open up the window and just have at it in the middle of the night,” Fletcher said, laughing. “And they didn’t know who it was.”

When he wasn’t slinging snowballs, Gronkowski was perfecting his “Gronk spike.” And he got plenty of practice. He scored 27 touchdowns in his first two seasons. In 2011, Gronkowski caught 90 passes for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns, perhaps the most impressive single season by a tight end in NFL history. Almost immediately, Gronkowski was a superstar.

But teammates, past and present, insist Gronkowski’s essence remained unchanged. Another former roommate in Foxboro, linebacker Niko Koutouvides, still cracks up when recalling Gronk’s travel routine from his breakthrough season. Patriots players were required to wear suits for away games. Gronk always stuck with the same navy suit and the same yellow dress shirt. He’d sport the suit on the plane, go on the road and pummel a defense, come home, and toss it on the floor in the corner of his room. Repeat.

“Never dry-cleaned it once,” Koutouvides said, laughing. “It was the wrinkliest ass suit you’ve ever seen by the end of the year. But he was balling his ass off. I said, ‘That wrinkly suit you’re wearing, it must be magic!’”

Gronk just preferred to keep it simple.

“There are very few material things in life that Rob cares about,” Koutouvides explained. “He doesn’t care about cars. He doesn’t care about clothes. He didn’t care about what sneakers he wore. There are very, very few things in life, from a material standpoint, that he felt he needed.”

A transcendent talent, Gronkowski wanted two things: To destroy on the football field and to have fun with his buddies.

Living with Fletcher and Koutouvides, Gronkowksi’s house often became a gathering spot for all Patriots. Gronk could bond with any teammate from any background, his friends said. And even as his celebrity took off, as headlines about his rabid offseason partying became commonplace, Gronkowski remained omnipresent in the community for all sorts of charity events, public and private.

“He’s way too nice of a guy all the time,” Koutouvides said. “All the time. As many signatures as he’s signed, or stopped for pictures, or charity events in the community, it’s just above and beyond a lot of other players I’ve played with.”

“With Rob, you have a player who has been so dominant over the course of his career, but has remained so humble,” Slater said this past season. “I think that’s special, especially in a business that’s so competitive, with so much money involved, reputation, self-promotion, etc.”

Endlessly entertained by middle-school humor, Gronk was simultaneously a goofball and a killer on the field. He embraced the violence of his position, which required him to go toe-to-toe with defensive ends in the trenches and absorb full-speed collisions — at the knees and up high — from safeties desperate to prevent the big play. Many times, those safeties bounced right off him.

“He always had a positive attitude and a positive mindset, and you don’t see many people with that who also have the aggressiveness and can turn it on as fast as he can,” Fletcher said. “He can just go out and can really be a force…Just an absolute animal. A lot of people maybe have to get mad to turn it on, where he naturally has that to him.”

To be fair, Gronk did sometimes get angry. Against the Colts in 2014, Gronkowski drove defensive back Sergio Brown halfway across the field, to the sideline, and straight into the turf after the whistle.

“He was yappin’ at me the whole time, so I took him and threw him out the club,” Gronkowski explained (which goes down as one of his all-time classic quotes).

There was a history between Gronkowski and Brown. In 2012, Gronkowksi suffered a fractured left forearm while trying to block Brown during an extra point attempt. It was the first of many injuries in his professional career. Gronkowksi dealt with myriad issues and surgeries on the forearm. He blew out his right knee. He endured back surgeries. He put his body through hell. He missed time, but returned as a devastating playmaker after each injury. He exits with 7,861 career receiving yards and 79 touchdowns, third all-time among tight ends.

It’s hard to pin down exactly one game or moment that defines Gronkowski’s career. He annihilated the Broncos in the 2015 AFC Championship game, accounting for 77 yards in the final four minutes. He smoked two Denver defenders for a 40-yard gain down the middle on a fourth-and-10. And then on fourth-and-goal, he came away with an improbable leaping touchdown against double coverage in the back of the end zone. The Patriots couldn’t convert the ensuing two-point try to tie the game.

Rob Gronkowski timeline with the Patriots

Then there was the two-point conversion in the 2017 thriller against the Steelers, when Gronkowski shook Sean Davis, caught the ball on a fade, watched Davis tumble to the ground, and then pointed at him before spiking the ball in front of a silent Pittsburgh crowd. Gronk totaled 69 yards on the final drive.

In Gronk’s final season, he felt compelled to speak his mind. He confirmed a report in September that he was nearly traded to the Lions, telling reporters, “Yeah, it happened. Brady’s my quarterback. I wasn’t going anywhere without Brady.” And during Super Bowl week, he opened up like never before on the physical toll of playing the sport.

“Abusing your body isn’t what your brain wants,” Gronkowski said. “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’ve got to be able to deal with that in the games.”

It’s no wonder Gronkowski decided he’s dealt with it long enough.

He walks away at age 29, a Hall of Fame resume compiled in warp speed. He accomplished everything, and did it as only Gronk could: utter destruction down the middle of the field, high-stepping, stiff-arming, single-handedly wrecking secondaries every Sunday. He’ll move into Hollywood or wrestling, or maybe both, and all but certainly into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Rob Gronkowski retires a legend, an enormous talent and personality who kept the fiesta rolling in New England.

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