Updated: Mar 25, 2019
A couple years back, the NFL Network made a list ranking the top ten New England Patriots of all time. Their countdown featured some all-time greats like Tom Brady and Adam Vinatieri, cult heroes like Troy Brown and Andre Tippett, and everyone in-between.
One of the interesting things that made this list unique compared to those for the Cowboys or 49ers was that two of the top three players were, and are, still playing. Brady, who finished number one, and Rob Gronkowski, who finished third.
Now I mean no disrespect to John Hannah, the legendary guard who finished second. While he was the man synonymous with the Pats from the 1970s up until the sixth round of the 2000 NFL Draft, it feels appropriate to place Gronk in the second position on my entirely personal list after all that he's done in recent years.
From the moment I first saw Gronk back in 2010, I knew that we were in for a treat. Not only was he a dominant beast out there on the field catching passes and throwing around defensive backs like they were frisbees, but he was also the most entertaining guy on and off the football field.
Now, I enjoyed watching guys like Troy Brown, Deion Branch, Kevin Faulk, and Ben Watson back in their heydays, but I couldn't tell you who they were as individuals. I'll give it to you this way, you would probably be astonished if you heard a story where Deion Branch got involved during a match at WrestleMania.
So, when this mammoth man-child literally dove into the NFL in the early 2010s, he was a refreshing change of pace. Not only that, but over an incredibly short period of time, he broke almost every tight end record in sight. He had the most touchdown receptions in a season with 17 in 2011. He had five seasons with at least 10 touchdowns. And he has the most career receptions in Super Bowl history (18) for any at his position. In all, Gronk currently either shares or owns 20 combined records for both the Pats and the NFL.
Another area where Gronk started dominating was on the injury list. Not counting his time in college, the 29-year-old has suffered 16 injuries as of writing. He's injured almost every major region of his right leg, he famously has a bad back, he's fractured his left forearm twice, and he's also been diagnosed with two concussions for good measure.
These injuries have done nothing but raise the respect Pats fans have for their tight end. Through all the surgeries and missed time, Gronk has always come back ready to get back to dominating the gridiron.
It's this connection that may have helped the battered tight end to return once again for the start of the 2018-19 season. There were rumblings in the media that were hinting Gronk was mentally not willing to go through another season, especially after losing to the Eagles in the Super Bowl. But something in him must have told him to give it one more run.
It definitely wasn't his own body that was telling him to go for it, that's for sure. There were times during this past season when Gronk looked about as stiff as the Tin Man and as dangerous as a bear in hibernation.
He famously couldn't tackle Dolphins running back Kenyan Drake, who would score the touchdown now known as The Miracle in Miami. But he also only caught three touchdowns on 47 receptions, and was essentially relegated to rush blocker with fellow tight end Dwayne Allen toward the final games of the season.
Many pundits including ESPN's Max Kellerman and Fox's Rob Parker would use their tv time to wax poetic that the fun loving, butt kicking tight end from Amherst, New York was broken beyond the point of repair and that retirement was the only option. But what they continue to not understand is that REAL Patriots like Gronk have this extra gear that they save up for the playoffs. And boy, did 87 prove that fact in spades.
Now we can continue on and talk about any of his 13 receptions during the playoffs including his vintage 25-yard truck against the Chargers in the Divisional Round or his grab over Eric Berry late in the fourth quarter in the AFC Championship Game. However, we aren't here to talk about the Divisional Round or the AFC Championship Game, we're here to talk about Gronk's game-changing moment during Super Bowl 53.
Gronk finished the Big Game with six receptions for 87 yard and while all of those 87 yards were integral to help push the Pats to their sixth title in just under 20 years, it was his 29-yard miracle that will never be forgotten by any fan watching the defensive battle intently.
The play itself served as the moment just before the crescendo, which was a two-yard rush into the end zone by rookie back Sony Michel. It was the fourth play of a game-winning drive that started with a pretty lob pass from Brady to Gronk to get the team around midfield.
Finding themselves on the Rams' 29-yard line, everything was on the board for defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. The Pats had yet to run the ball at all on this quick drive, and worse, Brady was starting to heat up.
Now I'm not one to understand the psychology behind play calling. Heck, when I was young and playing Madden against my friends, I would always ask the eponymous coach what play to call. So, I don't know why Bill Belichick or Josh McDaniels decided to run the following play. All I knew heading into this moment was that Brady was looking for Gronk.
And just like that, as mentioned before, the Patriots scored the first, and only, touchdown of the game and went on to win title number six 13-3. And while Julian Edelman was deservedly praised by everyone who had a live microphone, it was Gronk who may have had the team's finest moment all night.
Now I have to be honest with all of you. I'm not looking forward to Gronk's retirement announcement. Not only because it feels like he still has more to give to this organization, but because I'm not ready to see a new player don the number 87.
Now that does not mean that I don't understand that if anyone deserves to walk away from the game right now, it is the bruised and battered Gronk. It's not as if those injuries all went away during the playoffs and will continue to not plague him in the future. All I know is that all of us in Patriot Nation will miss him.
When I went to the Patriots' Super Bowl Parade in Boston last week, I was only a few feet away from the duck boats. And while I definitely geeked out when I saw all my favorite players, seeing Gronk was my highlight.
It wasn't getting the chance to see my all-time favorite football player, Tom Brady. It wasn't seeing a surprisingly jovial Bill Belichick smile and wave to his congregation. And it wasn't even seeing the Lombardi Trophy in all its glory. It was seeing that human velociraptor stand on the duck boat as he drank anything thrown to him.
So if this really is the end of the road for you, Gronk. Thank you for the memories, we'll see you in Canton, and most importantly, "YO SOY FIESTA!"
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Photo Credit: Twitter.com
Gif Credit: The Pats Pulpit Community on SBNation.com