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  • Writer's pictureJoe Pace

New England Sports 366, #69: Rob Gronkowski

For ten years, a thunder lizard roamed the field and the sideline for the Patriots. The best tight end ever to play, Rob Gronkowski was equal parts punishing offensive tackle, graceful wideout, devastating open-field runner, and free-spirited team jester. Gronk could open holes in the running game. Gronk could catch a three-yard hitch route and take it sixty yards to the house, linebackers and safeties so many bugs on the windshield. Gronk could and did go over you, around you, through you. He was Jerry Rice and Jim Brown in one huge, fast, strong, smart package.

Did I say smart? Yes I did. Though Gronk played up his frat-boy image, his football IQ was through the roof. He knew how to block, how to set up defenders for a catch or juke, and he knew where Tom Brady wanted him to be. No less a football eminence than Bill Belichick himself has raved about Gronk’s football intelligence. The greatest evidence of his acumen might well be his decision to walk away from the game while he could still walk at all.

Because that was the only thing that could stop Gronk. Not linebackers outmatched in coverage, not cornerbacks he had to throw out of the club, not referees seeing OPI mirages in the shadows of sheer physical dominance, not defensive coordinators flipping through playbooks for a page that hasn’t been written yet. Only his own mortality could slow Gronk. His back, his knees, his neck eventually betrayed him. And the limits of his body and medical science robbed us for another five to ten years of watching the most singularly talented player ever conduct a master class at his position.

There are plenty of memories of Gronk to cherish. His graceful touchdown catch against the Seahawks en route to his first ring, his diving grab against the Rams to set up his third. In between, all the times he careened down the field like a horse broke loose from the barn, the most exciting ten seconds in football. I have a vivid recollection of being at a Redskins game in 2011 with my brother, watching Gronk drag Washington tacklers around like a dad playing with his kids.

We miss him out there on Sundays, but I’m glad he left when he did. We can remember him as his goofy, dominant, championship self. Sometimes it’s better to leave the party a little too early instead of a little too late.

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