WILLIAMSVILLE, N.Y.—There was something known as the “Gronk-O-Meter” at Williamsville North High. It read on a scale from 1 to 10, measuring the frustration level of the school’s star athlete during games.
Here in the Northtowns, the northern suburbs of Buffalo, Rob Gronkowski was a tight end and defensive end (and freshman kickoff specialist, on account of having the biggest feet on the team at age 14); a center for the basketball team; and a first baseman who could launch the ball for what seemed like a mile. The havoc he wreaks on the field today as the Patriots’ All-Pro tight end was perhaps even greater back then, relatively speaking, when the disparity between him and his competition was impossibly wide.
In one game, Gronkowski scored all of Williamsville North’s points: a touchdown catch, a fumble recovery returned half the length of the field for a touchdown, and a sack in the end zone for a safety. Head coach Mike Mammoliti recalls the opposing coach saying afterward, “Are you kidding me?” Another time, Gronkowski went up for a dunk in a rival high school’s gym, and he came down with the rim still in his hands. He was double- and triple-teamed on the football field; sometimes defenders would try to cut him low. The best way to stop him on the hardwood was to foul him and hope it didn’t get called.
“He would get hit; he would get hit,” says Chuck Swierski, Williamsville North’s basketball coach. “So we called it the Gronk-O-Meter. We would watch it and see, where is his level? Because you could see him getting frustrated. We were afraid somebody was going to get hurt; he’s a man amongst boys.” Swierski even assigned his assistant coach the sole task of monitoring the Gronk-O-Meter during games, while he coached the four other players on the floor. When it approached 8 out of 10 (they could tell, because he’d get a little “herky jerky”) it was time to pull him for a play or two and let him cool down. But Gronkowski never fought his basketball or football coaches when they did that. They all knew then the same thing his current team knows now: They couldn’t afford to lose him for the game.
Gronkowski might not be the most valuable player on the field for the Patriots, but he’s a close second behind the team’s five-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback. His supporters back home are optimistic he’ll be able to play in Super Bowl LII after sustaining a concussion on a helmet-to-helmet blow from Jaguars safety Barry Church, which took him out of the AFC Championship Game just before halftime (and right after setting the all-time record for postseason receiving yards by a tight end). When not sidelined, Gronkowski has been the most dominant player in the NFL at his position over the last eight years.
That began here in western New York, where for more than a decade Williamsville North’s sports teams had the benefit of having a Gronkowski on their roster, an improbable run of five brothers who would all go on to be professional athletes at some level for some length of time: Gordie Jr., Dan, Chris, Rob and Glenn. Their pictures are lined up near the back of the headquarters of G&G Fitness, the equipment store their father, Gordon, a former Syracuse offensive lineman, founded with his brother in 1990. (Also hanging on the wall: a signed photo of Bill Parcells, apparently from his days as a Jets head coach. “To G+G Fitness, Good Luck. Bill Parcells.”)
A few miles away is the family abode, built as a wonderland for athletes, with a tennis court out front that also serves as a basketball court and street hockey rink; a backyard vast enough to simultaneously serve as a football field and a baseball diamond; and a basement gym outfitted with the best of the equipment sold by the family business. When the boys were growing up, there was a freezer in the basement just for meat; a refrigerator in the garage just for milk; and hot dogs consumed by the multi-pound bag.
Rob, the fourth of five sons, was the best athlete of the bunch, and his goofiness was nearly as memorable as his feats on the field (much like today). There was the time he was pursuing a toss play lined up as the defensive end on the far side, and as he chased the running back down from behind, his giggles could be heard on the sideline. “Let’s go play some football!” he called out as he popped back up after making a bruising tackle.
They heard those giggles again during a basketball game when, looking over to the bench and up at his buddies in the stands, Gronkowski purposely missed a free throw to keep the score at a number of, um, a certain significance: 69. This time last year, during yet another Patriots Super Bowl run, Swierski let slip that story to a Rhode Island TV station, “and I thought I was going to get fired,” he says. “But it’s an absolute true story.” That time when Gronkowski broke the backboard at a rival high school’s gym, during practice, his coaches snapped a picture of him afterwards—shirtless, of course. (His gift at the banquet that year was a piece of the shattered backboard mounted onto a plaque.) Gronkowski played his senior year at a high school in Pittsburgh, living there with his dad for a year when his parents separated, and the impact of his absence was so obvious during the Williamsville North football season that the school changed its basketball schedule, dropping some of the top non-conference opponents they wouldn’t be able to contend with without him.
There’s some irony in the fact that one of the best athletes to come out of western New York, Bills country, has enjoyed his success with the rival Patriots. (He still is motivated by his hometown team passing on him twice in the draft.) At the nearby Amherst Ale House, where Gronkowski’s favorite order is the “Stinger” sandwich—it has chicken fingers and steak, on the same sub—the entire place is decked out in Bills and Sabres jerseys, with signs thanking the Pegula family for keeping the Bills in Buffalo. The lone exception is a framed Gronkowski jersey hanging over the door. At G&G Fitness, “Gronk Fitness” T-shirts hang on a rack next to a Bills-colored Zubaz pants.
That irony turned into something more in December, when Gronkowski was playing back at home, in a game at the Bills’ New Era Field. When Tom Brady’s pass intended for Gronkowski was intercepted by rookie cornerback Tre’davious White, Gronkowski grew incensed that White hadn’t been flagged for pass interference against him. After the play was over, when White had already been tagged down, Gronkowski lunged on top of him with his 265-pound frame. White left the game with a concussion, and Gronkowski was suspended by the NFL for the following week’s game (an ugly loss to Miami in which the Patriots offense uncharacteristically sputtered).
“I caught a lot of grief for it,” Swierski says, referring to friends who are Bills fans and even students in his algebra and geometry classes. “I had a couple pretty interesting conversations with people about that incident, but Rob has always been really good to me and to my family, and I will defend him to my dying day about anything he does. But you have to remember, this is Bills territory.”
Mammoliti, Williamsville North’s longtime football coach, was at that game, sitting in a box with Gronkowski’s family. When they saw him in the tunnel after the game, Gronkowski told his former coach: “Mammo, I snapped.” He’d hit a 10 on the Gronk-O-Meter that day.
“He knew it was wrong,” Mammoliti says. “He was remorseful about it. He’ll learn from it, I’m sure, and you won’t see that kind of thing again.”
On a weekday afternoon in January, Dan Gronkowski, the second brother of five, is in his office at the main G&G Fitness store, one of the family’s 15 fitness equipment stores dotted across the Northeast (unsurprisingly, they furnished the weight room at Williamsville North). Wearing a “Gronk’d” ball cap and Browns sweatpants, from his stint as a tight end with the team a few years back, Dan declines an interview request. “Maybe after the Super Bowl,” he says, but tells his visitors they are welcome to look around the store.
Perhaps he doesn’t want to talk about his brother’s injury; perhaps he’s wary of saying something that could make waves, though the attention is nothing new for the Gronkowski family. There’s a picture circa 2005, when Rob’s older brother Chris signed a letter of intent to play for the University of Maryland. He’s holding up the paperwork, while sitting at a table in the family’s driveway with a Williamsville North banner draped over it—a precursor to today’s signing day celebrations.
This latest trip to the Super Bowl will be Rob’s fourth since the Patriots drafted him in 2010. In one of those Super Bowls—last year’s—Gronkowski was on injured reserve after midseason back surgery. In his first one, the loss to the Giants in Super Bowl XLVI, he played with a high ankle sprain. His best game was Super Bowl XLIX, the win against the Seahawks, when he caught six passes for 68 yards and a touchdown.
“I know even some of the rings he got when he was out, he doesn’t look at it like it’s my ring, because he wasn’t there,” says Mammoliti. “He wants a ring where he played the whole time. Because that means a lot to him, to be a part of that team and be a contributor like that. He doesn’t want to be a spectator.”
Not much has changed since his days in Williamsville: Gronkowski prefers to be on the field, taking over the game, and giggling about it.
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