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Bedard: Rob Gronkowski concludes improbable HOF career – for now

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The news hit with the subtlety of one of his touchdown spikes.

Just a normal offseason Sunday night, right around dinner time, and then…

Rob Gronkowski announces his retirement.

Boom.

Autumns in New England will never be the same…

OK, maybe that’s a little hyperbolic. It’s not like it’s Bill Belichick or Tom Brady walking away. The Patriots won three Super Bowls before Gronkowski. They won their second during the Second Hoodie Dynasty while he was sidelined with an injury.

So maybe Gronk wasn’t essential to the Patriots’ on-field success, but damn if he didn’t make it all a whole lot more fun. From the spikes and goofy answers, to his little quirks and celebrations, Gronk was the 10-year-old in all of us who never had to grow up between the white lines. There weren’t many games you watched Gronkowski play and you didn’t walk away with a smile on your face and/or he didn’t make you leap out of your seat.

And especially because it was the Patriots and their (seemingly, from the outside looking in) joyless pursuit of perfection — from Belichick’s non-answers and ruthless wielding of the salary cap and rules, to Brady’s often robotic pursuit of perfection on and off the field, and the organization’s closed-door mentality — Gronk made the whole operation a lot more human and entertaining. While the Patriots’ success and Brady’s public perfection made the team the New York Yankees of the NFL — hated everywhere but New England — who could ever dislike Gronk? It’d be like rooting against amusement parks and team mascots. You would have to be against fun. You’d have to be, well, a miserable lout.

Even in his final season, when it was apparent his body would no longer let him perform great feats of amazement with regularity,  Gronk was worth the price of admission every time he took the field. You never knew what he might do. You never knew what he might say. You never know what course he might set in his Gronk Bus to celebrate.

Yo soy fiesta.

Gronk was an original. They broke the mold. But after 91 career touchdowns (regular and postseason) in nine seasons and with a spot in Canton waiting for him for in five years, it’s easy to forget that his career was never supposed to happen.

And I’m not sure it’s quite over yet.

He will be 30 on May 14th. I’ve covered two significant retirements in my career — Brett Favre and Ricky Williams — and both returned to the NFL. I would not rule out Gronk returning at some point, perhaps this season, until a Patriots campaign concludes without him donning the Flying Elvis.

I can guarantee you there will be rumors and speculation about a possible Gronkowski return right up until the door is closed for good that season once Week 13 begins for the Patriots in early December. Do the Patriots have enough cap room to bring Gronk back? Heck, Miguel will probably have a weekly post dedicated to how much cap space is needed to activate Gronkowski after each game.

Leaving the gridiron for good is very hard for most players. Do I think Gronk is one of those I’m-nothing-without-football guys? No, I don’t. But if he’s feeling good and the Patriots are struggling a little bit around Thanksgiving, do I think there’s a chance he could want to return? Yes, I do. And if Brady calls him and says, “We could use you, Big Guy, for one more try. All we need is about five games,” do I think it would be difficult for Gronk to refuse that Bat Signal if, say, he’s not killing it in Hollywood? Absolutely.

But this will be talked about — trust me — ad nauseam for the next seven-plus months. Let’s talk about how Gronk’s superlative career defied the odds by merely happening.

After his sophomore season at Arizona, Gronkowski — who already had issues with stenosis and whose brothers had shaky back histories as well — suffered a badly ruptured disk in his back that either called for rehab or back surgery. Gronkowski, whose father had purchased a $4 million insurance policy on the tight end, opted for rehab. It didn’t take. Surgery was the only option if he didn’t collect the insurance money and, even if that was successful, Gronkowski’s damaged nerves would still have to regenerate. By late in 2009, and with the draft about four months away, Gronkowski had to choose between retirement, returning to school, or turning pro.

With a still-rehabbing back and having not playing in a game in over a year, Gronkowski opted to turn pro. Even his trainer said, three months out from the draft, that it was 50/50 if Gronkowski’s back would let him be anything more than an average tight end. Half the teams I talked to took him off their draft boards entirely, which led me to do the same. “That back,” said one NFL executive, “is a ticking timebomb. It’s not a matter of if it blows up, but when.”

Belichick and the Patriots were undeterred. Or, perhaps, they were that desperate at the position (they had nothing) at that time. In any event, they traded up to get Gronkowski with the 42nd overall pick. The rest, as they say, is history.

Many forget Gronkowski was not a phenom as a rookie — Aaron Hernandez, drafted four Patriots picks and two rounds later, was the immediate starter at Move TE, while Gronkowski sat behind Alge Crumpler for much of the season at the traditional Y TE spot.

The next season, Gronkowski would become a star. Even when was catching just two passes for 15 yards in a Week 4 win over the Raiders, Gronkowski showed clear signs of greatness. By the end of the season, an injured Peyton Manning was singing Gronkowski‘s praises to me in the tunnel of Gillette Stadium.

And yet, he would still endure countless serious injuries — ankles, forearms and ACLs that all required surgeries, two more back surgeries and concussions — and not only did he come back each time with vigor, his attitude never soured and he was the same Gronk until the end.

There will be much debate about Gronkowski’s place in NFL history at his position. I think much of that is pointless. Depending on what offense you ran and era, you couldn’t go wrong in saying that John Mackey, Tony Gonzalez, Kellen Winslow, Mark Bavaro, Ozzie Newsome or Gronkowski was the greatest tight end of all time. I think it’s safe to say Gronkowski was the best two-way tight end in the modern game.

He was a joy to watch, constantly entertained the masses and made the second half of the Patriots dynasty a little more human and fun. He was absolutely unforgettable.

And we’re not ready to say it’s over. Maybe it isn’t.

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