ROB GRONKOWSKI, holding an orange athletic bag in one hand and a beat-up iPhone in the other, strode through the fluorescent pallor of Boston's Logan Airport, down the stairs from Gate C41 and past the clunking baggage-claim belts, where tired families clustered. With each step he covered huge swaths of linoleum, his 6'6", 265-pound frame making him appear comically large next to his fellow passengers, a Yeti loosed amid the midday weekend masses.
This is an article from the Sept. 3, 2012 issue
Normally Gronkowski enjoyed interacting with Patriots fans, who have come to adore him, in part for his impact on the football field. In 2011, his second season in the league, he set an NFL record for tight ends with 17 receiving touchdowns, many of them while defenders clung to his back like remoras. But what really endeared him to every thick-neck in Greater Boston was his joyous personality. Gronkowski spiked each TD as if he'd just landed on the moon, attended every party to which he was invited, posed for photos on Twitter with a porn star and inadvertently coined catchphrases—most famously when an interviewer asked him a question in Spanish and he gamely offered, "Yo soy fiesta," which translates as, I am party. If there is such a thing as a patron saint of meatheads, it is Gronk.
On this day, though, Gronkowski was tired, so he kept his giant white headphones clamped on his ears as he made his way out the airport doors, unable to hear onlookers murmuring, "Gronk?!" Waiting for his car service, he signed an autograph for a middle-aged man who said, "Thanks for everything you did for the kids in Boston this year," though it was unclear what he meant by that. Gronk smiled and made small talk, but his heart wasn't in it.
It had been a long summer. Over the previous three months Gronkowski had signed a six-year, $54 million contract extension; appeared on the dating show The Choice; co-hosted Access Hollywood Live; wheelbarrow-raced with his brothers down the red carpet at the ESPYs; starred in the Twitter feed of a woman called Meredith Pineapples, who described their purported romantic exploits; and posed nude for the cover of a national magazine. Just the previous night he'd attended the Pittsburgh wedding of Kurt Angle, the professional wrestler. Now, only four days before the start of training camp, he was suffering from a condition that most people consider trivial. But when it afflicts Gronk, it can frustrate and befuddle him, dampening his otherwise boundless enthusiasm and causing brief bouts of soul-searching.
Rob Gronkowski had a hangover.
Normally he would attack the problem through exercise, ridding his body of noxious chemicals with a two-hour session in the weight room or an afternoon of wind sprints or by doing the Insanity workout, a brutal hourlong program of high knees, crunches and lateral slides. When possible, Gronkowski preferred to do the workout with his similarly affable and athletic brothers—Gordie, 29, a former first baseman in the Angels' farm system; Dan, 27, a tight end for the Browns; Chris, 25, a fullback for the Broncos; and Glenn, 19, a sophomore fullback at Kansas State—who occupy a four-way tie for the title of Rob's best friend. Since the Insanity workout requires only about 30 square feet of space, the brothers have done it in basements, hotel rooms and even the dining room of Rob's apartment, the furniture cleared back as 1,200-plus pounds of Gronkowskis leaped and grunted, floorboards creaking, sweat spackling the walls.
Rob had no such luxury this day. In an hour he was due at a woman's 21st birthday party, an appearance for which he was being paid five figures and was expected to provide the full Gronkowski experience. The next morning, Sunday, he could rest. For now, though, he had to rally for this, the final party of the Summer of Gronk.
HE IS many things to many people. Depending on your perspective Rob Gronkowski is: destined to be the best tight end ever; an overrated product of the Patriots system; a breath of fresh air; just another attention-seeking athlete. He is idiot, jester, hero, foil, buffoon and prodigy, the embodiment of a pathetic bro-centric fraternity culture, a regrettable symbol of the TMZ age. He is Andy Kaufman in the body of Dolph Lundgren. He is your first-round fantasy draft pick (unless you go for the Saints' Jimmy Graham). He is a thousand ridiculous nicknames on the lips of a thousand amateur sportscasters. He is a feminist's worst nightmare, your 15-year-old nephew's role model. He is only 23 years old.
Most of all, though, he is a Gronkowski. So to understand Rob or forecast his future—as a football player, as a person, as part of the sports celebrity culture—you must start with his family.
Two days before Rob landed at Logan, I met his father, Gordy, near his house in suburban Buffalo. He wore a tight white short-sleeved button-down shirt. He motioned me inside his black Ford F-150, the one with the Harley-Davidson detailing. Save for his thinning gray hair and creased forehead, Gordy could pass for the oldest Gronkowski brother. At 53, he lifts weights daily and has 18½-inch biceps. The WiFi network at his house is labeled BigG; his ringtone is the guitar riff from George Thorogood's Bad to the Bone.
Gordy grew up in West Seneca, N.Y., raised by a pure-hearted mother and a hard-drinking father —"a waste of a person, really," he says—whose own father, Ignatius Gronkowski, was a U.S. cyclist at the 1924 Olympics. As a kid, Gordy was a self-described "punk," getting in fights, pulling fire alarms and drinking in middle school until he finally applied himself in football and baseball. As an unheralded 6'3", 220-pound senior lineman, he bought a $240 Greyhound ticket that provided two weeks of unlimited travel. Carrying game film he stole from West Seneca's football office, Gordy, then 17, spent his spring break riding I-80 cross-country and then touring California colleges, shoving his game tape onto the desk of one coach after another. Upon returning home he caught the eye of Jerry Angelo, then the defensive-line coach at Syracuse, and got a scholarship offer. After excelling in three injury-plagued seasons, he signed an $18,000 contract with the New Jersey Generals of the USFL in 1983.
That was as far as Gordy advanced; he was cut at the start of Generals camp. He was already married, with a child, Gordie, on the way. For the next decade he worked long hours traveling the Northeast as a salesman, first for Pennzoil and later for a fitness supply company he owned. His wife, Diane, spent her days tending to their growing brood. In 1985, Dan was born, followed the next year by Chris and, in 1989, Rob, the only one of the boys who was planned, according to Gordy. By the time Glenn came along, in 1993, Gordy and Diane were overwhelmed.
Gordy prepared his sons for athletic futures from a young age, chucking them tennis ball grounders, hitting towering backyard pop-ups and, as they got older, firing balls at them from a JUGS machine—first Nerf, then tennis and then, in high school, baseballs. When the boys got too hyper, he introduced a game called Zoom-Zoom. Clearing the furniture from the living room, he gave each boy a couch pillow and had them all run full speed and, as Gordy puts it, "just knock the s--- out of each other."
It was Diane who bore the larger burden, though. Since Gordy worked until eight or nine most nights, she woke at 4 a.m. and ferried the boys from one practice to another: hockey to baseball to basketball to football. She spent $500 to $600 a week on food, buying half a cow at a time and loading it into two freezers in the garage. She bought 40-pound boxes of uncooked chicken and untold gallons of milk. She cooked every meal—the family rarely ate out, and fast food was largely prohibited. Rob says his favorite dish is still Diane's chicken soufflé.
Upon reaching seventh grade, each boy was allowed to play football, and in eighth grade to begin lifting. Gordy started his sons on the bench press in the family's basement weight room, using a broomstick for a bar, careful not to overload their maturing growth plates. Gains were incremental, 2½ pounds at a time, and form was crucial: three sets of 15 clean reps or you couldn't move up. Gordy kept track of everything in a tattered green notebook: body weight, reps, pounds pressed. To this day he believes his program was the critical step in his sons' development. "You might have talent in eighth or ninth grade, but if you don't get in that basement, you're not going to stay ahead of that game," he told me. "That's where I crushed everybody, because I started my kids in eighth grade. They crushed everybody because nobody could stay with them."
In the family's first house, in the Buffalo suburb of Amherst, the boys made do with a multistack machine, a pull-up bar and a bench press. Between 2000 and '02, Gordy built a new house just up the road, one he proudly showed off the morning after our dinner, noting how the hallways are wider than normal and the ceilings higher, "so we're not always bumping into each other." The property, which the boys call the Gronk Park, includes a fenced-in tennis and basketball court, a pool, a hot tub, a backstop, a tackling sled and a sprawling lawn 120 yards long.
The boys still gather at the Gronk Park each summer. When Rob was home in July, he and three of his brothers engaged in Activity Day, which has one rule: You must keep doing something. So hoops leads to lifting, which leads to 100-yard sprints, which leads back to hoops, which leads to Wiffle golf and finally to pool basketball. Intermittently, the boys slam protein shakes; at the end they drink voluminous quantities of light beer.
When together, the Gronkowski brothers revert to their long-standing roles. Dan, broad-shouldered and thoughtful, is invariably described as the "hardworking" brother. He spent long hours in study hall and now spends long hours studying the playbook. An Academic All-America at Maryland, he was nominated for a Rhodes scholarship. When he signed with the Patriots last year, he was assigned a locker next to Wes Welker and near Rob. As Dan recalls, after the first week Welker said, "I thought I was going to have two idiots sitting next to me in the locker room, but Dan's a little more intelligent than Rob."
Chris, the Broncos fullback, is the "smart" brother. More wary and introspective than the others, he had the highest test scores and got into Penn's Wharton School but chose a football scholarship at Maryland, then transferred to Arizona as a sophomore. He is also grudgingly accorded the title of "strongest" brother, able to bench 400 pounds—"though only because of his short arms," says Rob. Chris is also the conscience of the boys; it is he who asked me to mention their charity, the Gronk Nation Youth Foundation.
The oldest brother, Gordie, is by all accounts the smoothest. He is the one who keeps the group together, sending a pregame text message to his siblings every week with an inspirational thought. He also makes friends wherever he goes; it was Gordie who was invited to Kurt Angle's wedding and took Rob as his date.
Glenn, the youngest and at 6'3" and 235 pounds the lightest, is considered a combination of the others. His NFL future is uncertain—he'll need to bulk up at Kansas State to become a pro-level fullback. If he does join his brothers, they will become one of only two quartets of siblings to have played in the league at the same time. (Chris, Rob and Dan form one of only 23 NFL trios and the first since the Baldinger brothers in the early '90s.)
When I visited Buffalo, Gordy was renovating the house, which he bought from Diane after the couple separated in 2006, while Rob was a senior in high school. These days there is an 80-inch TV in the living room and a beautiful new kitchen. There is, however, one room Gordy can't bring himself to update.
Gordy escorted me downstairs slowly, as one might a visitor to an art gallery. And there it was: a vast subterranean weight room with a 10-foot ceiling ("so you can do proper pull-ups," Gordy said), riven by heating ducts and exposed pipes. In all, the room contained the following: a power rack, a long barbell with rubber plates, a leg-press machine, a single-column pulley, a lat pulldown machine, an assisted chin/dip set, a hammer strength swim rack, a fly and rear delt machine, a leg extension device, a calf raise set, 28 dumbbells ranging from 2½ to 70 pounds, an inversion table, a vibration plate, a worn-out stationary bike, a Roman chair, a treadmill, a crunch board, heavy balls, a balance board, a heavy bag, a medicine ball, a blue balancing pod, a foam roller and several jump ropes. Against one wall stood five trophy cases, one for each boy, each jammed with plaques, trophies, commendations and awards of every imaginable kind. Rob's case alone held 73 items.
This is where three of the boys, particularly Rob and Glenn, did much of their weight training, roaring at each other the Gronkowski training motto: "Do it to get chicks!" During my visit, Gordy and Dan spent a good hour downstairs, grunting and yelling while an old, tinny Philips detachable stereo blasted pop music: Kelly Clarkson, Pink, Fun. At the end, sweaty and grinning, Gordy explained his reluctance to make the room as new as the rest of the house. "You saw what happened to Rocky in that movie when he got a fancy training center," Gordy said. "He got soft!"
ONCE UPON a time Rob Gronkowski spent his adolescent summers sweating in that basement. Now he was being paid to go to some girl's birthday party. First, though, he needed to recover.
"Can you pull over at the first mini-mart?" he said to his driver shortly after leaving Logan. Moments later Rob returned with a bottle of Monster Rehab, an energy drink that contains a staggering 170 mg of caffeine. Rob is a big fan of energy drinks. In college at Arizona, he would chug a bottle of 5-Hour Energy and then fill it with vodka or tequila to take out on the town. "Sometimes I even fooled myself," he said. "I'd be like, Hey, that's not 5-Hour Energy!"
In person Rob can come off like a muscle-bound version of Woody from Cheers. His favorite words are crazy (used to describe all manner of situations, from actually crazy to crazy-good to crazy-unlikely); insane (reserved for stuff that's supercrazy) and perfect (as in, "Does noon work for you, Rob?" "Perfect!"). Like every Gronkowski male, he rarely goes more than a sentence without laughing loudly, in three beats—Huh-huh-huh!—and then looking around conspiratorially for someone with whom to share the moment. At one point in the car ride he became wistful about his childhood. "Growing up was crazy," he says. "That was the best time. If I could go back, I'd just go be a kid again. You got no responsibilities, you can do whatever you want and not get in trouble."
This is not exactly true. Rob got in a lot of trouble as a kid, but by high school no one cared because he was so far above his peers as an athlete. He was, as Eric Dahlman, his quarterback at Williamsville North, puts it, "a complete freak, indestructible." During a game his sophomore year, Rob scored all of Williamsville's points, scooping up a fumble and running it back 46 yards, catching a touchdown pass and then sacking the quarterback in the end zone. He blocked so ferociously that players sometimes crashed into the fence 10 yards beyond the end zone. He was so dominant as a defensive end that, according to coach Mike Mammoliti, opponents stopped running to Rob's side.
It wasn't all football. Rob had a 33½-inch vertical leap, and as a center on the basketball team he once shattered a backboard with a two-handed baseline dunk. According to Gordy, the Pirates considered drafting Rob as a first baseman and offering him a $60,000 signing bonus. In fact, Rob claims to be talented at just about every game; when I asked him the sport he's worst at, it took him three minutes to answer. Then, grudgingly, he chose golf—only to add, "I mean, I'm still pretty good."
After spending his senior year at Woodland Hills in Pittsburgh—primarily because Gordy moved to the city after the separation to expand his business—Rob headed to Arizona, where he set a number of Wildcats records. In 2010 the Patriots drafted him with the 42nd pick. Since then he's enjoyed nothing but success.
Gronkowski's specialty is the improbable play. Of the many he made during the 2011 season, one is particularly representative. It was Week 14, and the Patriots were leading the Redskins 7--3 in the first quarter. Tom Brady dropped back from his own 40 and whipped a 10-yard pass to Gronkowski, who dove to snag it and, realizing he had not been touched by Redskins defensive back DeJon Gomes, rolled over, leaped to his feet and burst upfield toward the sideline. Moments later, Gomes caught him from behind, locking his arms around Gronkowski's waist and digging his heels into the turf as if playing tug-of-war. Meanwhile, Redskins safety Reed Doughty grabbed Gronkowski from the front and wrestled him out-of-bounds. Or so it appeared to everyone, including Washington cornerback DeAngelo Hall, who arrived on the scene, stopped and began walking away from the play. Only, somehow Gronkowski managed to 1) not step out of bounds, balancing both his weight and that of his tacklers on one of his size-16 cleats; 2) drop Gomes with a single volcanic knee thrust; and 3) shed Doughty with a hip swivel. Thus, when Hall turned his head a moment later, he saw Gronkowski galloping down the sideline toward the distant end zone. Cue Redskins defensive back Josh Wilson, who sprinted across the field to cut off Gronkowski and, wisely deciding against attempting a straight tackle, kamikazied into the big man's churning legs. The tactic worked, and an off-balance Gronkowski toppled forward. But instead of thudding to the turf, he began a wild extended stagger, gaining another 13 yards before finally going down at the 11-yard line. Talking to reporters after the game, a stunned Wilson compared Gronkowski to a "human gargoyle."
Historically, Gronkowski is the latest in a line of NFL robo--tight ends that stretches back to Mark Bavaro and includes Tony Gonzalez and Jeremy Shockey (to whom Gronkowski wrote a fan letter in the eighth grade). Gronkowski is on track to best all of them. Already, his 1,327 yards and 90 catches last season rank as the first and 13th best ever for an NFL tight end.
Gronkowski affects a breezy attitude toward his success—"I couldn't believe it either," he told me of the Redskins play—and it can give the impression that he is a football savant. As his brother Dan, the Browns tight end, says, "Some of it isn't teachable. They say, 'Rob, go run this route,' and he just runs it. Me, I have to take three steps this way and three steps that way and break it off. He just runs out there and goes, 'Throw me the ball,' and it works. It's unbelievable."
Rob does little to dispel this idea. He claims he does not feel fear. "No, not at all," he told me. What about getting crushed over the middle? "It's all good," he said. "Sometimes it's cool, you want to get that feeling, to feel what it's like to get hit the hardest, when you're not looking, just so you're ready."
To hear his family tell it, Rob was born without the capacity to feel fear or pain. The first time he went skiing, at Holiday Valley in Ellicottville, N.Y., he sneaked to the top of the first run and went straight down as fast as he could. At home he endured withering charley horses from his brothers almost daily. Usually they were the result of botched sneak attacks; Dan would be standing in the living room, and—bam!—the smaller, younger Rob would hit him at full speed from behind. Then: retribution. Today, Rob's brothers believe his success at breaking tackles is a result of the ritual pummelings they gave him. "And all he'd do," says Chris, "is laugh."
Occasionally things came to a head. On a trip to Myrtle Beach, S.C., in the family's Ford conversion van, Rob antagonized his parents so much by fighting with his brothers and generally raising hell that Gordy pulled over at a rest stop and threw the boy out of the car, then drove away. At first Rob stood there smugly, knowing his dad would never abandon him. It wasn't until Gordy approached the highway on-ramp that Rob gave chase.
Another time, when Rob was 10 or so and had exhausted all of Gordy's goodwill, Gordy grabbed him and announced they were headed to Father Baker's, a mythical home for wayward boys. Rob didn't buy it. As the car pulled out of the driveway, he waved to his friends, telling them he'd be back and not to worry. Then Gordy pulled up in front of an abandoned building on Sheridan Drive and told Rob to grab his bag and go knock on the door. Finally, Rob cracked. He began crying. "No, this is it," Gordy said. "Your mother can't put up with you anymore. I talked to you a million times. This is it until they call and tell us you can behave."
Rob cried harder but refused to budge. Gordy grabbed his son's legs and yanked while Rob hung on to the steering wheel. Finally Gordy relented. "Are you gonna finally behave?" he demanded. "I'm sick of this s---, of your mother calling me all the time."
"I promise, I promise," Rob said, crying.
Says Gordy, "We came home, and he probably behaved for another day. Huh-huh-huh!"
NOW THE car was approaching the party, at a nice house in the leafy suburb of Hanover, 20 miles southeast of Boston, and Rob was feeling uncharacteristically anxious. As usual, he'd traveled light for the weekend wedding, bringing only a suit (now jammed into the bag), two pairs of boxers, dress shoes, two T-shirts, socks, shorts and a pair of jeans. ("It's all I need to get rollin'," he said.) He pulled out a blue Izod T-shirt and his "nice shorts"—wrinkled, frayed cargos with a stain on the butt. Rob appraised them, then tossed them back in the bag. "Nah, I'm just going to roll like this," he announced, meaning his old T-shirt and gym shorts. A minute later he changed his mind again and began hurriedly disrobing in the car.
Usually when he attends such events he has someone with him—an agent or a friend of the family. Today it was just the two of us, as this appearance had been arranged only three days earlier. "He's being offered stupid money," Gordy explained. "He can't turn it down." Unlike most athletes of his stature, Rob coordinates most of his own appearances—with plenty of advice from Gordy—much to the chagrin of the Patriots. The naked cover shoot for ESPN the Magazine's Body Issue, for example, surprised the team, as did most of Rob's postseason shenanigans. That led the organization, so tightly run in the Bill Belichick era, to announce an end to the Summer of Gronk. That was a week earlier.
But this was "stupid money," and the Gronkowskis are anything but stupid about money. Like his brothers, Rob says he has saved most of the money from his football contracts, investing it in tax-free municipal bonds at his father's decree. He subsists on freebies—he showed off the two iPhones he's received—and money from appearances and endorsements. Hence the birthday party, which Gronkowski was starting to feel hopeful about as he exited the car into a gloriously sunny afternoon. "Maybe," he said, "it will be a bunch of kids doing kegstands."
A moment later he was greeted by a woman from the speakers' agency that had arranged the appearance. She handed him a bunch of footballs to sign. As he began, a white Toyota SUV screeched to a halt 50 yards down the road and roared back in reverse, reappearing abreast of Rob. In the driver's seat sat a woman of 50 or so with short brown hair and sunglasses; an older white-haired lady sat next to her. Poking her head out the window, the driver jammed a finger at Gronk and declared, in that uniquely possessive manner of a Bostonian, "We love you!" He nodded. "Now you stay safe and don't get hurt," she said. Then she drove out of sight.
THIRTY MINUTES into the party Gronkowski started to feel uncomfortable. The arrival had gone just fine. He had walked out onto a back deck and surprised the birthday girl, who was dark-haired and pretty. Dads and uncles and friends cheered. One told the girl, "You've been Gronked!" There followed many photos, taken with a large plastic HAPPY BIRTHDAY banner in the background and barbecued chicken in the foreground. Gronkowski grinned but made little conversation. Mostly he laughed, which is what he tends to do when he's nervous and out of his element.
Finally Gronk took action. Striding down the steps toward the large back lawn, he bellowed, "Shotgun contest!"
The lady from the speakers' agency looked nervous. Sensing it, Gronkowski shouted, "No pictures!" Then, so as not to disappoint anyone: "You can take them after we chug." It is a testament to his affability and earnestness that he expected this to work.
Indeed, after spending the better part of three days with the Gronkowskis, it had become clear to me that none of this was an act. Rob is no Terrell Owens or Shaquille O'Neal, desperately courting the media to stay in the spotlight. There is no master plan, no Svengali, no viral marketing campaign. Rather, Rob is, as his mom says, "the same now at 23 as he was when he was 10. I mean, exactly the same." He wears the same clothes as in high school (in many instances literally), hangs out with his middle school buddies and does the same stupid stuff. Thus, when he parties and ends up on Deadspin, he is more disappointed than angry. According to Dan, "He says, 'Why do people have to sit there and take pictures of me? They're not partying at all? Why wouldn't you be dancing like I want to?'"
As a result, expectations of the Gronkowskis have grown. When Chris joined the Broncos, he was asked in one of his first interviews whether he was going to take his shirt off; this fall, Glenn showed up at Kansas State to find pictures of Rob's naked magazine shoot plastered to his locker. Naturally the brothers love it. They text each other after every new Gronk sighting and pull up Rob Gronkowski news alerts on their phones. "The stuff Rob says in the media, I think he's thinking of his brothers," Dan told me. "We all see it and text him and say, 'That was hilarious,' and he says, 'I know, that's why I said it!' Even if everyone else thinks it's stupid, if we thought it was hilarious, it's all O.K." On the other hand, as Dan says, "if we tell him it's stupid, he won't do it again."
Here at the birthday party everyone had been expecting Gronk to do something Gronkish, and finally he had. In the process, his nervousness had evaporated; these 21-year-olds spoke his language. Soon the shotgun competitors were arrayed: the birthday girl (freckled, excited, buzzed), three aviator-bedecked, flip-flop-wearing young men (skinny, scruffy, nervous as hell) and Gronkowski (tall, rocked, absolutely radiant). For the moment everything Gronkowski represents to football—the future of the Patriots; the most potent tight end in NFL history—was irrelevant. All that mattered was who could shotgun a beer the fastest. So while the 21-year-olds fiddled with their cans, trying to puncture the casing with car keys only to create embarrassing miniature geysers of froth, Gronk calmly pressed into the bottom of his can with an enormous thumb. In doing so he created a perfect rectangle from which to inhale the Bud. It was the move of a master. Then Gronk looked up, assessing the competition. "That's it?" he said. "Oh, I gotta win this one."
After a toast to the birthday girl, the beers went vertical.
Gronkowski came in second.
FORTY-FIVE MINUTES later, Gronk was on his third beer—or maybe his fourth, who was counting?—and the afternoon was gaining momentum. After the chug contest the group moved on to beer pong. Then, flip cup. The woman from the speakers' agency checked the time regularly. Gronk was scheduled for an hour. It was now an hour. Gronk did not seem concerned.
It would be easy, watching the scene, to conclude that Gronkowski is just a big frat boy. And he is, but he is also a gracious, joyous one. He didn't hide behind designer sunglasses or check his phone or in any way act cooler than anyone else. Even when he lost at beer pong (teamed with the birthday girl) and, after that, flip cup (3--2 in a best of five), he didn't pull rank or get upset. He high-fived the birthday girl with exceptional exuberance after each made shot and laughed it off when the same man who shouted "You got Gronked!" yelled, while watching Gronk rim out beer pong shots, "Good thing he's catching passes, not throwing them!"
Indeed, Rob is eager to please, often to his own detriment. That notorious Super Bowl party the night of the Patriots' loss, at which he got drunk and took off his shirt? "Dude, it was the Patriots fans who got me drunk!" he told me, incredulous. "What was I supposed to do, turn down the shots?" Occasionally others become defensive on Rob's behalf. Diane bristles when talking about the Internet reports, questioning their veracity. His dad frames it as a failure by the rest of society. "He's not shooting guns, he's not raping nobody, he's not tattooed up, not having earrings flopping from his ears," Gordy says. "He's a good, clean-cut American kid having fun. What's wrong with that?"
Now, at the party, the flip-cup game was interrupted.
"O.K., who's going to be the designated driver tonight?" asked the birthday girl's father, a lifelong Patriots fan.
Before anyone could respond, Gronk did. "Get them a limo bus!" he shouted gleefully. "If you do, I'll come along."
THE LIMO bus never materialized. So at around 5:30, carrying an extra plate of food and praising the host's pasta salad, Gronkowski walked out to the waiting car service. An hour later he was home. Sort of.
Gronkowski lives in a two-story condo in a middle-class neighborhood so close to Gillette Stadium that he could jog to practice every day. His virtually empty kitchen could be that of a guest at a Residence Inn. The refrigerator held only condiments, eggs and energy drinks, and the counters were lined with a random assortment of Gronkanalia: a box of those ESPN magazines, a YO SOY FIESTA T-shirt (the family copyrighted the phrase), a bunch of orange Ping-Pong balls. There were few mementos—Gordy has Rob's AFC Championship ring, which he refuses to wear because the Patriots didn't win the Super Bowl. Every minute or so a fire alarm in the kitchen cheeped a low-battery warning. Gronkowski didn't notice.
By 7:30 the beers had worn off and Gronk was contemplating a quick Insanity workout. It was, he said, the first day in the last eight that he hadn't worked out, and he was feeling antsy. "People say, 'He's doing way too many things,' but [I do them] because I got nothing to do," he said, sitting on what he calls his "chill couch" with his huge arms wrapped behind his head. "That's why I hit up every charity event, why I hit up every party I'm invited to. If I'm just sitting at home, that's not productive. That's boring."
He paused, grabbed a nearby pillow, cradled it like a football. "I like going out, meeting new people, having a good time," he continued. "I guess that's why I'm all over the papers. I don't have any girlfriends, no kids. Basically I work out two hours every single day, and then I have 12 hours to do whatever I want."
He looked at me, and I nodded, because it did sound simple. In 10 years, Gronkowski will be worried about so much: concussions and aching joints, possibly a wife and children, bad publicity, who knows what else. For now, though, he exists in that electric, untenable flash of time that is being young, supremely gifted and on top of the world. He is, for a fleeting moment, invincible.
I asked his plan for the night, once he finished his workout.
"Straight chilling," he said.
Then, as I got up to leave, he sensed that on some level I was disappointed—that I'd come to chronicle the wild and crazy Life of Gronk, and here he was, sitting home by himself on a Saturday in a forlorn Boston suburb. As he walked me to the door, he brought the conversation back to that afternoon. "I was hoping it would have been just an all-out college party," he said. "It would have been worth it. I would have been there all night, I would have gotten hammered."
Then he added, quite unnecessarily, "I'm not kidding."
LATER, ON the way back to Boston, the driver told me stories of other athletes: Kevin Faulk, Antoine Walker, Tom Brady. He said Brady, early in his career, was remarkably friendly and polite—he sat up front, not in the back, and always brought dinner out to the driver if he was waiting at a restaurant. Then Brady got famous, and his agent was always involved, and everything changed. The driver remembered taking Brady to a nightclub in Boston after a Super Bowl win and depositing him at a back entrance. Within hours, thousands of people had clogged the streets, desperate to get a glimpse of the star quarterback.
Now the driver wondered what might become of Gronkowski. "He is a nice kid. Polite," the driver said. He paused. "Who knows what he will be like in five years. I hope he is the same."
Beginning to Ends
If Rob Gronkowski maintains his early career pace, where will that put him among the game's tight end greats? More than 200 touchdowns? Record-keepers, get ready
*Conservative projection based on Winslow's and Gonzalez's first two years compared to the rest of their careers and using a 15-year career for Gronkowski, to match the 15 complete seasons Gonzalez (who plans to retire following '12) has played.
See more pictures of Rob Gronkowski by Walter Iooss Jr. and others at SI.com/photo