New England Patriots

MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 09:  Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots celebrates his touchdown in the second quarter against the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)

MIAMI, FL – DECEMBER 09: Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots celebrates his touchdown in the second quarter against the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)

By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com

Sports figures like Rob Gronkowski are exceptionally rare. The kind of rarity that spans lifetimes. And it’s why, even decades from now, a gaze up to the NFL skies would still reveal his glimmering star.

Gronkowski announced his retirement on Sunday, but that doesn’t mean he’s truly gone. He left too much of an imprint. Some of it lies on the fields where he planted hapless defenders. His career burned out before age 30, but his star will shine much longer than that.

Gronk supernova’d into the league in 2010, gradually gaining traction as a rookie before making a seismic leap in 2011. By Week 17 of that season, which ultimately went down as his most productive, he’d established himself as the NFL’s most dominant pass-catching force. As a tight end.

FOXBORO, MA - DECEMBER 24: Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots reacts after catching a touchdown pass during the second quarter of a game against the Buffalo Bills at Gillette Stadium. (Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images)

FOXBORO, MA – DECEMBER 24: Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots reacts after catching a touchdown pass during the second quarter of a game against the Buffalo Bills at Gillette Stadium. (Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images)

But Gronk’s receiving was only part of the equation. He played with the speed, hands, footwork, and body control of an elite wide receiver, but also bullied defenders with his superior size and power. He rag-dolled smaller pass-rushers as a blocker. He dazzled like only the most dynamic players of their generation do. His football intelligence matched his singular physical abilities.

And even still, such a level of talent can go to waste if you don’t maximize it in the biggest of moments. Gronk did that, too. All the way to the final catch of his career, which set up the only touchdown of the Patriots’ 13-3 win in Super Bowl LIII, Gronk showed that even a diminished version of himself had the innate ability to make a championship play simply because he had to in that particular moment. That’s true greatness.

And it’s the new definition of “complete player”. Few NFL players before Gronk had his combination of elite physical talent, genius-level football IQ, and big-game elevation. Jerry Rice, maybe?

Gronk was a home-run threat every time he touched the ball. And not always for the same reason. He could snatch a seam pass in stride and freight-train his way to pay dirt, or catch it at the sidelines as defenders swarm him before wriggling free and exploding toward the end zone. Like when he embarrassed the Colts in the famous “kicked him out of the club” game, or demoralized a doomed Redskins defense in 2011, or overpowered the Bears secondary in 2014.

And on top of all his football dominance, Gronk matched it with a larger-than-life personality that sidestepped the classic Patriots tenet of saying nothing interesting to the media. Fans across the world marveled at his party-boy energy, chuckled at his giggling affection for “69” jokes, and pardoned him when he endearingly butchered the Spanish language. We enjoyed it all, because the only thing more enjoyable was watching him play football.

Gronk was one-of-a-kind. And it’s why Bill Belichick certainly knows he shouldn’t overplay his hand to chase “the next Gronk”. He could pay some draft picks to move up and get T.J. Hockenson or Noah Fant out of Iowa, and make no mistake, those two should have very good NFL careers. But neither should be expected to approach Gronk. No one should.

The Patriots need to find their next No. 1 tight end, but they won’t find a package as complete as the one Gronk delivered for nine brilliant seasons. Now we just need to appreciate that we were alive to watch him when his star shined the brightest.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - FEBRUARY 04: Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots makes a 4-yard touchdown reception against Ronald Darby of the Philadelphia Eagles in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LII at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Eagles defeated the Patriots 41-33. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

MINNEAPOLIS, MN – FEBRUARY 04: Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots makes a 4-yard touchdown reception against Ronald Darby of the Philadelphia Eagles in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LII at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Eagles defeated the Patriots 41-33. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

But Gronk’s impact was so massive, his presence so mesmerizing, that his star will continue to shine for generations. Because we’ll spend those generations wondering if the NFL universe will find anything brighter.

I’d bet against that.

Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at matthew.dolloff@bbgi.com.