As Rob Gronkowski walked up to the stage at the annual gala benefiting Make A Wish Massachusetts and Rhode Island Saturday night, the standing ovation was swift and enthusiastic. Not only was he being celebrated for his work off the field, it was Gronk's first public appearance since announcing his retirement on March 24.
Just like so many days in his nine-year career, Gronk stepped out in honor of some special kids.
Gronk received the Wish Hero Award for his work granting wishes throughout his time in New England. Having granted 14 wishes thus far, Gronk's reach and impact on the lives of those he's met is immeasurable.
In his acceptance speech, Gronk recalled his first year with the Patriots, when Tom Brady granted a wish and the entire team joined in welcoming the special guests.
"As the years went a long, I started to get similar calls for kids whose wishes were to meet me. Now that's when I realized I was getting cool like Tom Brady. The Make A Wish foundation is incredible to be able to provide kids with the opportunity to do whatever they want and achieve whatever they want and dream big however they want," he said. "But out of all things a kid could choose to do, it's a very, very humbling experience to know that these kids choose to meet me."
Though the wish was the same, every experience was different. Gronk welcomed his new friends to Gillette Stadium, played catch on the field or even competed in video games in the stadium suites. He even made a house call -- surprising a young fan who wanted a replica of Gillette Stadium built in his backyard.
A few of those wish recipients returned the favor Saturday night, surprising Gronk and walking with him to the stage to accept his award.
Though the football chapter of Gronk's life is closing, he said the volunteering chapter is still very much open.
"This is just the stat right now. To be able to grant wishes, to continue that, to keep going out in the community, it's not just because of football and everyone supporting us," he said. "This is a lifetime thing ... It's definitely something special, and it's just the start tonight, just the beginning of it."
In the room, the support was clear, and since making his decision to retire from the game of football, the outpouring of love from teammates, fans, family and people around the league has been overwhelming but touching.
"It was huge to see the support from my teammates, coaches, fans, family, friends, Camille [Kostek]," he said. "It's just great and you know, the outpouring of support is just unbelievable to leave the game of football and just [to see how] much of an impact that I've made to the community, to my fans, to my teammates is something special. It makes me want to continue to keep working hard and be the guy that I am."