As he spoke to reporters in the moments after Super Bowl LIII, Rob Gronkowski sounded elated, exhausted, inspired and (perhaps surprisingly) a little bit philosophical.
"It was the most satisfying year I have ever been a part of," he said after the Patriots battled through a 13-3 victory over the Rams. "How we came together. The obstacles we had to overcome … it was life. We went through life this year."
A transcribed quote cannot do justice to the stirring mix of bittersweet passion and deep weariness in Gronkowski's voice, expression and gestures that night. He did not sound like Gronk the Goofball, the middle school class clown giggling at fart jokes who we all think we know. He was Gronk the Leader, praising and congratulating the teammates who starred in a Super Bowl in which he was reduced to a supporting role.
He was also Gronk the Warrior, a 29-year-old athlete whose body has been betraying him since before he even entered the NFL, as he reflected on a grueling game, season and career. He spoke of "grinding" and "wearing the other team out," but he sounded worn out and weary of the grind, like a man who went through a lifetime every year.
The NFL lost a one-of-a-kind individual when Gronkowski announced his retirement on Sunday. Gronkowski was not just one of the game's greatest players but also one of its unique characters. His personality, with all its contradictions and contrasts, was as important to the NFL as were his touchdowns and contributions to championships.
Everyone is familiar with Gronk's goofball caricature: He was the NFL's nutty nephew, the much-needed comic relief for the grimly businesslike Patriots, the not-always-politically-correct overgrown fraternity brother whose offseason adventures resembled an endless Cabo getaway.
But Gronk the Goofball wouldn't have lasted long in the NFL without Gronk the Warrior. Gronkowski was the most rugged blocker of his generation at tight end, as well as a player who gutted through recurring back injuries his entire career and often was in obvious pain on the field. And let's not shortchange the little-publicized role of Gronk the Leader, whose work ethic and dedication fit snugly into the Patriots Way, even though his lifestyle and sense of humor did not.
It's not easy to be the NFL's clown prince. The old guard of owners and coaches fear fun, because they think they are in the weekly-warfare business, not the entertainment business. Want to be the funny, freewheeling oddball? You better work twice as hard to earn the trust of no-nonsense Bill Belichick types.
That's why there weren't many players in NFL history quite like Gronkowski. The personalities and accomplishments of the few all-time greats who dared to be different still resonate across the generations.
Joe Namath was a lot like Gronkowski. Broadway Joe was irreverent, iconoclastic and a little too sexy in his time for the stodgy NFL. Namath spoke to the counterculture of the 1960s and early '70s the way Gronk appeals to the generation the NFL is struggling to attract away from YouTube and Fortnite.
Deion Sanders was also a little like Gronk in his heyday. "Primetime" was easy to write off as all flash and self-promotion until he backed up his brashness—not just with preternatural talent but also with competitiveness and an undeniable dedication to his craft and his teams.
The NFL needs generational personalities like Broadway Joe, Primetime or Gronk every decade or so to let some fresh air into the league's musty mentality. Long hair was OK. Do-rags and jewelry were OK. Being free-spirited and having some fun playing a kids' game is OK. They teach the league that old-school determination, work habits and leadership appear in different packages in different eras. They make things easier for the next generation of players to follow in their footsteps.
Namath, Sanders and Gronkowski also led their teams to championships, which unfortunately is also a critical part of the equation. Without the rings, offbeat superstars are likely to be written off as selfish, troublemakers or distractions. As great as Chad "Ochocinco" Johnson was, for example, he's remembered as more of a curiosity than a trailblazer.
On a different team, without Belichick's validation, Tom Brady's passing and an annual fast track to the playoffs, Gronkowski's hijinks might well have been held against him at the first sign of trouble. Just imagine how offseason party cruise news would go over on local sports talk for some team that finished 5-11.
Then again, Brady's long career third act and the Patriots' most recent spurt of Super Bowl appearances probably would not have been possible without Gronkowski's willingness to keep sacrificing his body. The warrior behind the goofball was never that hard to spot for those who took the time to look.
I've covered Gronkowski for years, interviewed him, written wisecracks about him, been among the media throngs before and after several Super Bowls. I've seen him play along with the pre-Super Bowl tomfoolery (doing so was practically one of his designated roles on the Patriots), heard him clamp down and go into football-cliche mode when it was time to get serious, seen him leave everything he had on the field and limp off in agony.
Only with the adrenaline draining in the wake of Super Bowl LIII did I hear the urgent, almost-spiritual version of Gronkowski, simultaneously jubilant and introspective, who equated football with life itself.
It was a reminder that NFL players are not their caricatures or the personas we create from their quotes, endorsements, sideline shenanigans and Instagram posts, but complicated human beings.
There are warriors within Cam Newton, Odell Beckham Jr. and other players who get criticized for being too fun-loving, fashion-forward or just different: men of breathtaking talent who grind, play through pain, make unseen sacrifices for their teams and teammates and go through "life" every football season.
Gronkowski was embraced for his idiosyncrasies and humanized an often joylessly successful team and league. May the copycat NFL learn from his legacy and allow other players to mix a little goofiness with their greatness.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter:@MikeTanier.
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