The freakishly talented Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, five times a Pro Bowler and four times an All-Pro, hung up his cleats over the weekend, just shy of his 30th birthday (29 — nice!). But for all his on-field accomplishments, the primary quality that set Gronk apart, among today’s landscape of socially conscious athletes and MAGA-loving coaches, is how you couldn’t pin him down. He was an ineffable bro — a man who played dirty but never with malevolence, who acted the fool but scored a 32 out of 50 on the NFL Combine’s Wonderlic intelligence test (his genius game manager Tom Brady produced a nearly identical score, at 33, and legendary Dolphins passer Dan Marino scored 16).
My father hated Gronk from the first moment he laid eyes on him — namely because Gronk reminded him of fellow All-Pro tight end Mike Ditka. My father had played against Ditka in high school and college, and despised him. Or more precisely, he despised Ditka’s gifts. Ditka was easily great on offense and defense, blessed with a long stride and soft hands, and could go four quarters as a largely invisible, dopey-seeming decoy in the passing game before hauling in an impossible reception that spelled defeat for his less talented opponents.
Gronk, my father reasoned, was just another preternaturally talented Eastern European-descended tight end who could turn it on whenever he wanted, another player with exceptional acceleration and the lingering cramps, pulls and tears that come with it. Gronk wasn’t a gamer willing to double down on the performance-enhancing drugs and day-long workouts, like his undersized Patriots teammate Julian Edelman or hyper-durable linebackers James Harrison and Ray Lewis. These were the players who wanted it, the men who would drive a dagger in an opponent’s heart, preferring not to defeat them but to destroy them. They played the way Mike Tyson boxed, with bad intentions.
Per my father, losing to a fierce foe like Harrison or Lewis was understandable. There was no shame, for example, in being bulldozed by a workaholic running back like Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis, who repeatedly lit up my father during a 44-0 pasting delivered by the Syracuse Orangemen to his undermanned West Virginia Mountaineers, a game called early by officials after the WVU players had stopped tackling their opponents and started punching them. But to have a Ditka or Gronkowski blow past you, seemingly dopey men with natural gifts far beyond the pale, was an insult. There was simply nothing your run-of-the-mill good football player could do when those two were given an opportunity to turn it on.
Gronkowski, this kind of slack-jawed stupor mundi, somehow managed to be of Bill Belichick’s teams but never really on them. Granted, Gronk’s teammates loved him, as did the endorsers who have rushed to pay his bills and allowed him to leave his NFL earnings untouched, but he only played a full 16-game season twice and his magical moments in the postseason — 1,163 yards and 12 touchdowns across another 16 games, or another full season of football — happened despite his missing two entire Patriots playoff runs, including the 2016 season that culminated with a thrilling comeback victory over the Atlanta Falcons in the Super Bowl. Whatever Gronk provided was always a bonus, always a surprise, always something that appeared outside of Belichick and his coordinators’ skillfully-designed systems.
He also always made impossible plays look routine, at least when he wasn’t ailing and beat up, as he was for much of last season when he looked big, slow and strangely mortal the way a 33-year-old Ditka did during his final Super Bowl season with the Dallas Cowboys in 1972. Watch clips of Gronk during 2018 and Ditka on that Cowboys team, and you’ll see these two formerly lightning-quick oafs now lumbering on unsteady piano legs, putting their shoulders down and trying to square off tacklers rather than jumping over or speeding past them.
The opposite of Gronkowski’s sunny greatness, however jerky or insouciant he might sometimes appear to be, was fellow tight end wunderkind Aaron Hernandez. Hernandez was every bit as physically impressive as Gronkowski in terms of raw NFL combine numbers and pass-catching acumen, but their professional partnership was cut short when Hernandez murdered a man who was dating his fiancée’s sister.
Hernandez, who committed suicide in his prison cell in 2017, lived a life clouded in darkness as he struggled to deal with one of the worst cases of CTE ever recorded in athlete so young. His intentions went far beyond bad to outright villainous, driven to violence and paranoia by dint of efforts in a sport that hurt Gronkowski’s body, but by all accounts, left his mind intact. Hernandez arguably died from football, while Gronkowski, the other half of the early 2010s Patriots’ two-headed tight end monster formation, left it on his own terms.
Gronkowski’s many nagging injuries, in other words, were unfortunate but far from tragic. His torn hamstrings and ripped ACLs and forearm infections slowed him down, but they didn’t stop him. He was no Bo Jackson-like meteor, shot down long before he could reach earth. Sure, he didn’t accumulate the numbers of other star tight ends like Antonio Gates and Shannon Sharpe, but that’s because he quit before he could decline. His peak, however, ranks against anyone’s. He will, in fact, go to the Hall of Fame because he was the best athlete on the best football teams of his generation.
Off the field, Gronk drew occasional groans for his bro-like demeanor, but he offended no one. He didn’t aspire toward the kind of civic-mindedness of an empire builder like LeBron James, because it didn’t matter. Gronk was easy like the Sunday mornings on which he stretched out his ailing hamstrings and prepared to play, the white athlete — the great white athlete, rarer still — as a kind of cultural default. He accepted his endorsement checks and book royalties more as tribute than as a refuge from privation, did what he needed to do on the field to assure his reputation and decided on his own terms when his run had come to an end.
The reason my father, who grew up so poor he couldn’t pay attention and so abused that his traumatic stress disorder was never truly post anything, hated Mike Ditka was because Ditka came from relatively stable roots, with a father who was a labor leader and a long-time railroad worker. Ditka, then, might know defeat and disappointment, but never devastation and deprivation. Temper aside, Ditka became a player’s coach largely unconcerned with Xs and Os because that was never his thing, that was the stuff hard-working subordinates like undersized backup college lineman and defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan could handle. Similarly, Gronkowski, great-grandson of an Olympic cyclist and son of a college football player turned fitness equipment magnate, was always already blessed with all the right moves.
So what, then, did the charmed Gronkowski stand for? He wasn’t a shouter, he wasn’t an activist, he wasn’t an avowed MAGA man like teammate Brady, heck, he wasn’t even troubled. He was merely great for a little while, starring serenely during a turbulent decade during which the country was never so fractured, and now he is finished. We may never see his like again, although whether that bodes good or ill for football fans is as open to interpretation as his blank slate of a beefy chest.