PHOENIX -- Rob Gronkowski was down. He wasn't getting up. For an instant, Matt Patricia thought his coaching career might be over.
"We do a goal-line, seven-on-seven period every day in Friday practice," Patricia said in response to a question from NBC Sports Boston photographer Bill Messina. "I would usually stand over the cans. We put the trash cans out there as the O-line. They'd be running crossing routes. A lot of times when you do seven-on-seven passing plays, the advantage goes to the offense. Being a defensive coach, I was trying to make it as difficult as possible.
"So Rob is running. He's running a crossing route behind me, and I knew he was. I took the garbage can, and I just slung it backwards, and it caught him right in between the legs. He goes down hard and he's laying on the ground and he's not getting up. This is Friday before a game. I'm like, 'This is it. I'm done. Gronk's not getting up. This is about it.' "
Turned out Gronkowski was OK. He was milking it.
"He's playing it off. He was fine," Patricia said, smiling. "But I was like, 'Get. Up. Right now. Before I get fired. Like, what are you doing?' Great guy."
Had you stopped by any number of the tables strewn about during the NFL's annual coaches breakfast at the Arizona Biltmore on Tuesday, odds were you might hear some sort of Gronkowski story, some anecdote about his playing days, some compliment from a former opponent who no longer has to worry about game-planning for arguably the greatest tight end the game has ever seen.
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"He was always a tough player to match up against," said Saints coach Sean Payton. "His physicality. We study all the New England tape so on a weekly basis we'll see what they do. I think the one thing watching him, you saw him do a lot of smart things on the field. There was a physicality to how he played, but there was also an intelligence to how he played."
Andy Reid was one of the last head coaches to have to worry about Gronkowski, who hit the reserve/retired list officially on Tuesday. In the AFC title game in Kansas City, Gronkowski was nearing the end of a season in which he was at times physically and mentally beaten. Still, he caught six passes for 79 yards -- including critical fourth-quarter and over-time third-down conversions -- to help the Patriots advance to the Super Bowl.
"I'm just glad he's working on his second career," Reid said. "In a good way. In a good way . . . A quarterback always needs his guy. That guy has been his guy for a long time. He's been consistent for him. When [Tom Brady] needs a go-to, he goes to him. [Julian] Edelman's also jumped into that role too. But [Gronkowski has] been his guy."
Brian Flores had the opportunity to coach against Gronkowski on a daily basis in Patriots practices over the years as safeties coach, then linebackers coach and defensive play-caller. According to Flores, that's where Gronkowski did some of his best work.
"All of my Gronk stories end in a spike," he said. "There's so many. He was just such a great practice player. I think that's the one things people don't -- there's no way to know about that. The way this guy blocked, that's kind of a lost art at the tight end position now. It's a testament to his size, his strength, his athletic ability, but just his toughness and his ability to want to go into the trenches and do those things . . . He did a great job in practice on a day-to-day basis."
Flores added: "Rob's a great friend, somebody I've been around for a long time. He's an incredible player, but he's a better person. I'm gonna miss watching him go out there and have fun and play the game with the joy and the love for the game that he did . . . I'm gonna miss competing against him because that was fun. We lost a lot of those, but it made our guys better. It made our team better. It made the defensive guys better. It made the overall team better with just his passion for the game. It's a sad day, honestly because he brings so much to the game of football. He played it the way it should be paid. I'm really proud of him. I love the guy and I wish him the best."
As tough as Gronkowski was to coach against, Flores, now the head coach in Miami, wouldn't take a victory lap over the fact that a division rival just lost one of its best players.
"Whatever makes the game better, I'm for it," Flores said, "so I can't say that. I like to compete. The opportunity to compete against him, that would've been enjoyable for me as a competitor and somebody who has a love for the game. I wish him the best. He knows that. He knows I love him. He's a great competitor and I think he's one of the best to ever play."
For Patricia, another defensive play-caller who faced the daily challenge of locking down a 6-foot-6 behemoth with arguably the best hands in the game, the challenge was memorable. But Gronkowski's personality was worthy of equal praise.
"Rob's an unbelievable guy," said Patricia. "His passion, his love for the game. A lot of times you'd look out there, and I would chuckle to myself because you're like, 'This kid is out there playing football like he's in his backyard.' [It's] like he's eight years old and his love of the game is still the same. He's got that wide-eyed look. Loves to compete. Loves to go at it and just try to get better. That's the one thing you just respect is his work ethic. As great a player as he was on Sunday, the things he'd do during the course of the week were even better. I think as a coach and a teammate you can really respect the way that he attacked the game."
And that fun-loving demeanor extended beyond the field. Patricia explained that Gronkowski often went out of his way to spend time with Patricia's young family.
"[He's] just a great person, a great guy," Patricia said. "We'd trick or treat at his house. All those things. Just really cool [qualities] that make a person special, that he had. Obviously wish him the best in his next career, whatever that may be. He'll be great. [I'm] probably a little bit excited that I don't have to see him on Sundays, but can't totally write that off either."
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