Put the youngest of the five fun-loving Gronkowski brothers—Glenn—in rural Kansas with an old-school septuagenarian coach, Bill Snyder, and you get ... a Wildcats charge for the playoff
This is an article from the Nov. 3, 2014 issue
STREAMS OF Kansas State sorority girls weave their way toward the bar at Kite's, a quintessential sticky-floored college hangout near campus. They sing along to Bon Jovi and seek eye contact with the bartender, who flashes an easy smile and recommends his specialty shot, the H Tweezy: Southern Comfort with watermelon schnapps and pineapple juice. The girls giggle, toss back the mutant concoction and shout as they retreat, "We just got served by Gronk!"
The final installment of America's favorite oversized, occasionally overserved and ridiculously athletic family is coming of age. Glenn Gronkowski, 21, is the fifth of five brothers to earn a college scholarship, and if he reaches the NFL, all will have played professional sports. Gordie (31) was a minor league baseball player, while Dan (29) and Chris (27) had stints in the NFL. Then, of course, there's Rob (25), the Patriots' All-Pro tight end and last-call aficionado. Goose, as Glenn is called by his father and brothers, is a sophomore at Kansas State, a do-it-all fullback helping the No. 11 Wildcats in their attempt to crash the College Football Playoff.
From Goose's summer gig behind the bar at Kite's to his turquoise Hummer H2—also nicknamed the H Tweezy—it's obvious that he has channeled the family's work-hard, play-hard, live-large ethos, epitomized by Rob's frequent and highly public off-the-field exploits. ("Yo soy fiesta!") "We both like to party," says Goose's roommate, Zach Nemechek, a senior fellow fullback. But how did the last fun-loving Gronkowski brother wind up playing for one of America's most notoriously buttoned-up coaches?
Bill Snyder enjoys distractions as much as he would a mug of month-old milk. He preaches and pursues his "16 goals for success" so single-mindedly that for years he skipped major meals to focus on coaching. The pairing of Goose and Snyder has all the makings of a bad sitcom, but it has turned into the story of a hardworking overachiever—the lost narrative of the Gronkowski family—and a coach who has won by recruiting players based on their star potential instead of their star ranking.
When Glenn Gronkowski visited Kansas State as a 190-pound high school wide receiver with only one scholarship offer, from Buffalo, Snyder believed in what the young player could become. Gronkowski, for his part, believed in what Kansas State could be.
The two sized each other up and decided to, well, take a shot.
ON CHRISTMAS EVE 1996 in the Buffalo suburb of Amherst, N.Y., Diane and Gordy Gronkowski had a prime rib roasting in the oven, the table set for an elaborate family dinner and plans for everyone to attend church later that night. As Diane put the finishing touches on the meal, the boys played mini-stick, a basement hockey game. Someone checked Rob into three-year-old Goose. (He got the name from Diane, who called him Silly Goose.) His chin was split open, and a trip to the emergency room broke up the family dinner.
Goose's Christmas present arrived early: a half-dozen stitches and a scar that remains visible. For the Gronkowskis the moment is not remembered as a holiday ruined but rather as a point of such pride that they show the home-video footage to visitors. "It was classic," recalls Chris. "Every game ended up in a brawl or with someone getting hurt."
That Christmas Eve hospital trip set the tone for Glenn's rough-and-tumble childhood, in which he served as his older brothers' ball boy, punching bag and wrestling heel. While Goose never grew to 6'6", like Rob, he's thrived thanks to the toughness he developed tagging along and getting tagged. His favorite moment (in retrospect) is the time Rob's dinner fork ended up lodged in his elbow. Goose doesn't remember what led to the stabbing, but it's hard to keep track when even the most innocuous family interactions turned into battles royal. Rob Gronkowski recalls the fork incident with his distinct staccato laugh—heh, heh, heh—which sounds like a quarterback's cadence. "I was always torturing him," Rob says, his voice filled with pride. "If we were playing a board game, we'd end up fighting, and I'd always tackle him and toss him around."
Out of necessity Glenn developed a signature counter move he calls the Treatment. He delivers it by squeezing his fists on the sides of Rob's neck. "It's painful but ticklish, and I can't really move my whole body," Rob says. He then sighs: "I have to tap out."
When each of his boys hit eighth grade, Gordy began training him in the basement weight room, which is better stocked than the ones at some small colleges. Gordy runs G&G Fitness Equipment, a company that sells commercial and retail weightlifting apparatus. And while the weight room played a major role in the brothers' development, they were swimming in a pretty good gene pool. Gordy played offensive line at Syracuse (1977 through '81), and his grandfather Ignatius was a member of the 1924 U.S. Olympic cycling team.
This collision of nature and nurture led to impressive results. Gordie, a 6'6", 250-pound first baseman, earned a scholarship at Jacksonville University and spent three years in the Angels' system and another three playing independent ball. Dan was a 6'5", 255-pound tight end at Maryland, where he was nominated for a Rhodes scholarship before becoming a seventh-round pick of the Broncos in 2007. Chris, a 6'2", 245-pound fullback, turned down a chance to go to Harvard and followed Dan to Maryland, but after two years he transferred to Arizona to play with Rob. Chris and Dan each played parts of three seasons in the NFL, and in '11, when they and Rob were in the league simultaneously, a Yale student calculated the odds of that at 1 in 31 million. (Dan and Chris are now out of football.) "Other than Rob, coming out of college we were all overlooked," Dan says.
Goose's brothers left more of an impression on him than bruises. He absorbed Gordie's charm, Dan's work ethic, Chris's intelligence and Rob's zest for life. Which is why he's smooth enough to be the top-selling bartender at Kite's, smart enough to earn a 3.8 GPA, savvy enough to keep his nightlife off social media and dedicated enough to emerge as a starter and a potential pro. "What I get from them is, you just have to keep going," Goose says. "In the end it all pays off. I've seen it right in front of me."
FROM THE weight room to the classroom, Gordy Gronkowski has preached hard work and persistence to his sons. So when Kansas State approached him and Goose about a gray shirt—arriving on campus the January after graduating from high school—the Gronks accepted. "I loved the gray shirt idea," Gordy says. "A lot of people think their kids are [going to be] superstars when they walk in. I look at it differently. I want my kid to mature and get stronger." Goose arrived in Manhattan in the winter of 2012, participated in spring practice, then redshirted that fall, which is how he became a 21-year-old sophomore. Along the way he morphed from a sub-200-pound wideout into a 6'3", 235-pound fullback.
AS GOOSE grew, he built a relationship with Wildcats co--offensive coordinator Dana Dimel, who had been Rob's and Chris's position coach at Arizona. He'd developed the perfect balance of teaching and busting chops that allowed the brothers to thrive. Rob and Chris poked fun at Dimel, the former head coach at Wyoming (1997--99) and Houston (2000--02), by calling up images of the robust mustache he'd sported earlier in his career. Dimel gave it right back: A missed block by a Gronkowski would earn the coach's sarcastic praise in the film room—"Great effort there!"—and multiple slow-motion reruns.
Little has changed with Glenn. Dimel calls Goose and Nemechek the Festrunk Brothers after the old Saturday Night Live "Two Wild and Crazy Guys" skit. They call him Bill Dimel, which a friend mistakenly thought was his name. The Gronkowskis all swear by Dimel's offensive acumen and mastery of nuances, and he has fit in well in Manhattan.
The idea of a perennial football power in rural Kansas still surprises some, but Snyder, 75, has somehow built a consistent Big 12 contender there—twice. His 184-91-1 record and 15 bowl bids have come over two stints, from 1989 through 2005 and since coming out of retirement in '09. At a practice this summer Goose pancaked a linebacker in a drill and felt pretty good about it. Snyder ignored the result and said, "You've got to get an inside fit on that." Goose could only smile. "He notices the small things—that's why he does so well," Goose says. "Everything you do, he's watching you."
Suddenly everyone is watching the Wildcats, who began the season ranked No. 20. Their 31--30 upset of Oklahoma in Norman on Oct. 18 thrust them into the playoff picture. But how do you gauge the talent of a team on which three of the five captains—senior center B.J. Finney, senior defensive end Ryan Mueller and senior linebacker Jonathan Truman—are former walk-ons? The other captains are junior college transfer quarterback Jake Waters, a senior who drew minimal interest from other power programs, and senior receiver Tyler Lockett, a Tulsa native who didn't receive a scholarship offer from Oklahoma, Oklahoma State or TCU.
Waters has emerged as a typical Snyder dual-threat quarterback—think Michael Bishop or Collin Klein. He ranks fourth in the Big 12 in passing efficiency (147.8), fifth in total offense (289.3 yards per game) and second among QBs in rushing (52.9 yards per game). His big play in the Oklahoma upset, a 62-yard pop pass to Gronkowski for a touchdown, epitomizes the simple beauty of the Kansas State offense. Waters took a shotgun snap and started to run toward the line as Gronkowski broke up the seam. If the linebacker had covered Gronkowski, Waters would have kept the ball. The linebacker played the run, so Waters passed to Gronkowski.
"It's not a surprise anymore," says Waters. "The teams are watching film, but if we execute it, it's a hard play to stop."
As Goose ran to daylight in Norman, he also claimed family bragging rights. No Gronkowski had ever caught a post-prep touchdown pass that long. Besides fullback, Glenn has moonlighted as an H-back, tight end and slot receiver this season, and his brothers have encouraged him to play as many special teams as possible, to add versatility that should make him more valuable to NFL teams. In the Super Bowl era only the Browner family—Jim, Joey, Keith and Ross, who played from 1979 through '87—has put four brothers on NFL rosters. If Glenn makes it, much of his success will trace back to the one-set-at-a-time work ethic formed in the family basement.
It's the same mentality that put Goose behind the bar in Manhattan this summer. Kite's owner, Rusty Wilson, says it was Glenn's willingness that distinguished him. "He's a really good bartender," Wilson says. "He takes it seriously. He wants to learn the recipes, how to make them right."
Andrew Nusall, one of Goose's close friends from home, attends Kansas State and toiled beside him at the bar. He says Glenn didn't have to take the job, but he would rather work than take money from his family. That's another reason he's meshed so well at Kansas State. "His lineage doesn't really become a topic of conversation," Snyder says. "He hasn't asked for or expected any special treatment because of it."
Glenn Gronkowski is taking his shot, hoping to catch his brothers. He might even surpass them.