The introductory email I received warned me, in bold, not to wear high heels for football activities. Leading up to Rob Gronkowski’s first-ever Football 101 Women's Clinic, I felt justifiably skeptical.
On Monday night, roughly 120 women in activity-appropriate footwear descended upon Harvard Stadium to learn football from the Patriots tight end. The evening’s organizer, ProCamps, had modeled the event after a similar yearly affair organized in Cincinnati by the Marvin Lewis Community Fund. Though the drills would be similar, a Gronk-hosted clinic figured to attract a different demo than the subdued Bengals head coach—and it was marketed accordingly. The selling points were unlimited cocktails and a hands-on football clinic with the chance to spend time with everyone’s favorite NFL party boy. Prior to the event, it was anybody's guess as to what kinds of women would be drawn in by such an offer (and its $99 price tag.) Would I be dealing with aspiring Mrs. Gronkowskis in full make-up? NFL fans hoping to learn more about the game? Misguided drunks? Other undercover journalists? And perhaps the better question: What kind of woman would get the most out of this sort of experience?
Check-in took place at 5:00pm in the Harvard athletic department building, where we received our complimentary t-shirts—color options were pink or pink—and were treated to an hour of open bar. Crowds of women gathered around high top tables in a warm lobby, mingling over raspberry vodka-pomegranate Gronktinis (or wine or beer, if a Gronktini was for some reason unappetizing). Gronk-signed items were strewn about the room as part of a silent auction. New friends helped wrestle freshly-issued t-shirts over each other's hooded jackets and marveled at the unflattering nature of cold weather layers.
After ingesting a carefully-labeled 100 calories worth of grilled chicken and a Gronktini, I tracked down the caterer to learn whether the in-depth labeling was common practice, or a condescending way of helping us dames watch our figures. Turns out she likes to provide that information to all her diners, regardless of gender. One threat of potential pandering: Eliminated.
But there would be others. Coach Jim Snow referred to us as “girls” while addressing the happy hour crowd of 20-to-40-somethings—though in fairness, Snow eventually asked what we would prefer to be called. “Ladies” was the consensus. What does it mean that we had to have this discussion? Who knows. Thinking about it makes me want a Gronktini.
Gronk made his first appearance about 40 minutes into the cocktail hour, decked out in his own pink t-shirt and, of course, camouflage Zubaz. He was greeted by a shrill chorus of shrieks and catcalls, and as Coach Snow introduced him, the 120 women present elbowed one another in an effort to get close enough to snap a photo, thereby undermining our newly-agreed-upon title of "Ladies". Naturally, part of Gronk's introduction involved coyly asking us if we knew what a “tight end” was, and then turning his back to a sea of screaming women and twerking. And we're off.
After drinks we were led down a flight of stairs onto the field at Harvard Stadium, where various football paraphernalia had been set up: A large foam tackling cone for tackling, and foam mats that figured to be involved in a footwork drill. We were broken into ten teams of 11-12 people and told that we'd be rotating through a series of six drills. After completing them, we learned, we'd participate in a skills competition that would effectively be our "playoffs" before the Super Bowl that was … a tug-of-war match with Rob and his Gronk brother Gordie. When ProCamps holds clinics for kids, they culminate in an actual football game. We tipsy adult women were getting a simplified punt-pass-kick showdown. My activity-appropriate footwear would barely be required.
The stations were what you would expect: Receiving, three step drop, route-running, ball-carrying, tackling, and even field goal-kicking. We learned the best way to accept a hand-off and the proper footwork for a clean three-step drop. But once the drill rotation began, the secondary benefit of breaking us up into small groups became apparent: It helped better manage the Gronkowski photo ops that were included with the price of admission. One by one the teams were pulled from the skills stations and invited over for a group photo, and each time the Ladies would suspend their dignity to race for a spot near Gronk, attacking prime adjacent seats like Hunger Games tributes rushing the cornucopia.
It was a fascinating dichotomy: The ever-respectful, all-male coaching staff treated each female participant like any other aspiring football player, while the actual NFL star was objectified by the majority of attendees. Some women outed themselves during cocktail hour, such as the especially ambitious participant who groused that Gronkowski “should be out here drinking with us, so I have half a chance”. Others waited for the right moment on the field. One woman introduced herself to Gronk as “the future Mrs. Gronkowski” before sharing with him the most important lesson she learned during the clinic: "get aggressive, get low, and wrap it up." (Considering that the quote was a piece of verbatim advice from the tackling drill, it's unclear if her double-entendre was intentional. I'll let you be the judge while I make myself another Gronktini.)
Then there were the participants whose effort levels were conditional—specifically, conditional on Gronk being present to watch. Their aggressiveness and exertion remained at a consistent level until Gronk appeared near their stations, at which point the women would channel their inner Ndamukong Suhs and catapult into a different stratosphere of look-at-me! In one such instance a pigtailed young woman (pictured in the header above, staring holes into Gronkowski's back) nearly bowled me over in a "non-contact" ball-carrying drill. I was wearing a brace on my knee that night because I had previously torn an ACL playing pick-up football. I wasn't keen on tearing another just because Pigtails was trying to AP her way into a tackling drill with our host.
For his part, Gronkowski was a consummate professional for the duration of the event. He patiently posed for photos, sweetly listened to meandering stories from fans eager to build a rapport, and even gamely participated in target="_blank">a thirty second dance-off that started off as an attention-getting measure by a handful of participants. That Dougie sequence has since resulted in a “what else would we expect?” response from the Internet, but Gronk was actually coerced into it by the crazed women swarming around him. Let the truth be known.
Around 7:30, we had all completed the stations, and it was time to test our new abilities against each other in a cooperative skills course. For it, individual team members would compete at one of ten different stations, with the hope of completing the course with one of the four lowest times. Some women had to push an insanely heavy sled for 20 yards, or run ladders in a helmet and shoulder pads. I was tasked with throwing a football through one of those wooden receiver targets with a hole in the middle. Somehow, despite the pressure of the moment and my frozen hand, I roped my first pass through the target. And yet, it wasn't enough—not even activity-appropriate footwear could help our designated placekicker guide the ball through the uprights, meaning we wouldn't be one of the four teams to participate in the game of football since it was a football clinic tug-of-war match to determine the night’s big winners.
Nevertheless, I considered my perfect throw a minor victory for the night, even if I didn’t wind up getting to yank on the same massive rope as Rob Gronkowski. (I've possibly had too many Gronktinis.) I can't say (and didn't want to ask) whether the other women in attendance came away feeling victorious. I imagine that some walked away happy that they can now identify an out route when watching NFL games with their boyfriends or husbands. Others will look fondly on their team photos with Gronkowski, cherishing their hard-earned proximity to him.