New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) Credit: Keith Srakocic | AP

When Rob Gronkowski announced his retirement from the NFL on Sunday, Tom Brady was quick to let the tight end know just what a special place he had in the quarterback’s heart. Brady referred to Gronkowski as the GOAT (greatest of all time, but you knew that), and shared his “love” for the fun-loving touchdown machine.

Gronkowski dropped quite the news bomb onto an otherwise fairly slow period for the NFL, with the biggest free agency signings wrapped up and the draft a month away. Still not yet 30 but already battered from nine hard-fought, if exceptionally productive, seasons with the Patriots, he said on Instagram that it was time to “move forward with a big smile knowing that the New England Patriots Organization, Pats Nation, and all my fans will be truly a big part of my heart for [the] rest of my life.”

In a comment on the post, the 41-year-old Brady said, “Love u man!!” He appended a goat emoji and added, “Couldn’t be a better person or teammate!!!!”

In his own Instagram post, Brady called it “an honor and privilege” to have played with Gronkowski. “You accomplished so much and our team was almost unbeatable when you were on the field!” Brady said. “Your fun-loving, inspiring, and positive energy made an impact on everybody you came into contact with!”

Brady’s 18 NFL seasons as a starter (including a 2008 campaign in which he suffered a season-ending injury in Week 1) fit neatly into periods before and after the drafting of Gronkowski as a 2010 second-rounder. Remarkably enough, the quarterback’s enormous success before the tight end arrived was eclipsed by their work as teammates.

From 2001 through 2009, Brady’s Patriots won three Super Bowls and went to five AFC championship games. In that span, he went 97-30 and completed 63.4 percent of his passes for 30,838 yards, 225 touchdowns (with a 5.3 percentage), 99 interceptions (with a 2.3 percentage), 7.3 yards per attempt and a 93.4 rating.

With Gronkowski from 2010 through 2018, Brady won another three Super Bowls but made a whopping eight AFC championship game appearances. In that span, he went 110-30 and completed 64.6 percent of his passes for 39,670 yards, 292 touchdowns (with a 5.7 percentage), 72 interceptions (with a 1.4 percentage), 7.7 yards per attempt and 101.0 rating.

In short, almost every aspect of Brady’s game improved, even as he left his early 30s and played into his 40s. Meanwhile, Gronkowski made a case as, indeed, the greatest of all time among tight ends, given his blocking prowess and surefire Hall of Fame receiving numbers, including 521 catches for 7,861 yards and 79 touchdowns.

Of course, Brady was hardly alone in saluting Gronkowski. Patriots owner Robert Kraft said of the four-time first-team all-pro, “He always has a youthful exuberance about him and is a joy to be around. As a player, he earned the respect of his coaches and teammates for his hard work, preparation, selfless attitude and the sheer dominance of his game.”

“It was a pleasure and a privilege to coach Rob Gronkowski the past nine years,” said New England head coach Bill Belichick. “From his rookie year until his final season and through countless times in between, Rob was a major reason why we won games and championships. His elite combination of size, skill, intelligence, toughness and ability to perform in pressure situations set him apart.”

In turn, Gronkowski said he “grateful for the opportunity” that Kraft and Belichick gave to him “when drafting my silliness in 2010.” Veteran NFL announcer Al Michaels said of the tight end (via, “He truly embraced who he was and always had a lot of fun with it. Of course, he has the perfect name. His name wasn’t Smith. It’s Gronkowski, and it’s Gronk.

“He was a real character and he’ll be missed in the game.”

Other NFL players also chimed in on social media. “Gronk one of the most dominant players to put on a helmet,” said the Bears’ Kyle Long. “Amazing career.”

Gronkowski did not spell out what his post-NFL plans might look like, saying only, “Cheers to all who have been part of this journey, cheers to the past for the incredible memories, and a HUGE cheers to the uncertain of whats next.”

He’s unlikely to move straight into a TV booth as a color analyst, particularly given the struggles last year of fellow star tight end Jason Witten. A possible career as a WWE personality seems more likely, but in the meantime, Gronk can take some time to bask in the adulation of his former Patriots teammates and other NFL stars, who knew better than anyone just how great he was.