THE BLACK IRON GATES protecting the suburban Massachusetts estate swing open. A visitor walks up the long driveway to a five-bedroom house—bigger than a McMansion, smaller than an actual mansion—and is greeted by a man with thinning dark hair and the squat build of a former high school fullback. A red T-shirt draped over his beer belly reads, I'M KIND OF A BIG DEAL. He offers a firm handshake: "Rob Gronkowski, nice to meet you."
From a few yards away, near the doorway with its number 87 welcome mat, the real Gronk's laugh—"huh, hut, huh, hut"—sounds like a quarterback pleading for a snap. The man at the top of the driveway is actually Robert Goon (yes, that's his name), who along with being a friend and confidant serves as Gronk's contractor, dishwasher, airport chauffeur, security guard and roommate.
Goon's duties include driving and caring for the white party bus that's parked in the driveway. Gronk bought it from a church on Long Island last summer, thoroughly renovated it and nicknamed it the Sinners Bus. It seats eight comfortably and includes hardwood floors, blinking lights and the kind of sound system one would expect from a nightclub on wheels. Goon flew to Long Island to pick it up and drive it back to Foxborough. It now doubles as an airport shuttle and a tailgate vessel for members of the Gronkowski family flying in for game weekends. "Just a normal party bus, nothing too crazy," Dan Gronkowski, Rob's older brother, says nonchalantly.
Believe it or not, Gronk's ownership of the bus can be viewed more as a sign of maturity than of debauchery. After years of being an easy subject for iPhone paparazzi, with gawkers buzzing around him at bars and snapping shirtless photos that inevitably found their way online, Gronk has seen the value in hosting the party instead of seeking it. Goon serves as the driver and makes sure everyone gets home safely—instead of Uber, Gronk jokes, they have Goober. "You can still be having fun," Gronk says, "but maybe it's in more of a setting where people don't know what's going on."
Let's be perfectly clear: Rob Gronkowski, still only 25, is not a paragon of maturity and conformity. He wasn't suddenly transformed by the thoughts of career mortality that came with the six surgeries that forced him to miss 17 games over the 2012 and '13 seasons. When asked if he has considered what he would do after football, Gronk hesitates and says, "No." From the other side of the house, Goon screams, "MINI GOLF!" If you need more proof that Gronk is still Gronk, take a look at the new Entourage movie trailer, in which his beer-funneling skills are on full display. As the Sinners Bus demonstrates, Gronk is simply partying smarter.
They're celebrating with him all around New England. Gronk looms as one of the most important players in the 2015 NFL playoffs, thanks to a comeback from ACL and MCL tears that defied medical norms. Gronk's return resulted in 82 catches this season; his 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns led all NFL tight ends. And with New England clinching home field advantage through the AFC title game, having Gronk in full health—he played 15 games this season, missing only the meaningless Week 17 loss to Buffalo—and MVP form entering the playoffs for the first time since '11 could well mean the Sinners Bus ends up pulling into Glendale for the Super Bowl.
THE LAST time we saw Gronk playing consistently at this level—requiring double teams, dragging three defenders through the red zone and flummoxing opposing coordinators—was in 2011. The Patriots predicated their offense that year on Gronk and Aaron Hernandez, and the second-year tight ends dominated all the way to Super Bowl XLVI. The Patriots lost to the Giants, but everything changed for Gronk. His name became a verb ("You've been Gronked!") and his quips ("Yo soy fiesta") landed on T-shirts. Something as simple as going to dinner in Boston's North End became such a chore that his teammates stopped inviting him to avoid the inevitable scene. He understood.
The moment Gronk morphed from NFL star to TMZ target can be traced to October 2011, when adult film actress BiBi Jones tweeted out pictures of herself and Gronk, who was wearing his goofy grin and no shirt. Jones revealed later in a radio interview that Gronk requested she tweet out the picture so he could get more Twitter followers. (She had about 100,000 and he fewer than 60,000; he's now up to 672,000.) The incident exhibited Gronk's most enduring and endearing trait: his simplicity.
As Gronk's profile rose, his core personality remained entrenched in the FGK House. That's the four-bedroom faux frat house in Foxborough where Gronk lived during the 2011 and '12 seasons with linebacker Dane (Freshman) Fletcher and journeyman linebacker Niko Koutouvides. Defiantly unrefined, they duct-taped the initials fgk (Fletcher, Gronkowski and Koutouvides) to the living room wall like fraternity letters. "[Gronk and I] were into the same things, girls and hanging out and having a good time on top of football," Fletcher says.
Fletcher, Gronk and Kouty didn't bother buying silverware, instead taking plastic utensils and plates from the Patriots' facility and washing them for multiple uses. A bum leg caused the kitchen table to topple over with the slightest nudge. Fletcher got endless entertainment from Henry, a fake mouse that he'd tie with fishing wire and place in the fridge and cupboard. "Rob never failed to scream," Fletcher says. "He's such a wuss."
FGK hosted teammates for endless Cornhole tournaments and backyard archery, thanks to Fletcher's bringing his bow and arrow from his native Montana. As Gronk set an NFL record for tight ends by snaring 17 touchdown passes in 2011, Koutouvides estimates that Gronk washed his bedsheets about once a month—"if we were lucky." Kouty cracks up at the memory of the lone wrinkled navy suit and yellow dress shirt that Gronk tossed on the floor after every game, only to pick it all up a week later. Gronk donned the same pair of size-16 Converse sneakers he'd had since his rookie year: Fletcher witnessed the gradual corrosion of the kicks from sparkling white to garden-soil brown. "He does not care one bit about material items," Fletcher says. "That's the cool thing about him."
Gronk worked harder than he partied, something his friends insist got lost as his public persona evolved into its Zubaz-clad, shirtless, dating-show phase. On road trips Gronk would arrive at the team hotel and go into a plank pose—a taxing yoga posture—for long stretches. He'd cook broccoli or mixed vegetables with almost every meal. Former Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien recalls Gronk's consistently running 30 or 40 extra routes with Tom Brady after practice. "He's one of the hardest-working guys that I've ever been around," O'Brien says.
It soon became hard to ignore the buzz around Gronkowski. Steelers defensive back Ross Ventrone, who moved into FGK in 2012 while with the Patriots, recalls an afternoon trip to see a movie on a weekday turning into an hourlong impromptu autograph session. A simple man suddenly couldn't do the simplest things. "He's such a good dude," says Ventrone, "he could never walk away and never would."
ROB GRONKOWSKI arrives in the Patriots' locker room by 7 a.m. every day and doesn't walk around so much as he bounces, like a puppy let outside after his owner's long hours at work. On a recent day he giddily read a Christmas message for fans in Spanish—"Yo soy Roberto Gronkowski"—while a smiling Brady walked by and declared, "And the Oscar goes to...."
The daily glee that Gronkowski brings to the office is in powerful contrast to the depths he reached in 2013. In November '12 he had broken his left forearm while blocking on an extra point play; then he broke it again in January. Complications that off-season, including an infection that required surgery, delayed his recovery and forced him to miss the first six games of the '13 season. He was playing in his seventh game that year when another major injury struck. Against Cleveland on Dec. 8 Gronkowski charged upfield after catching an over-the-shoulder pass from Brady. Browns safety T.J. Ward's left shoulder pad collided with Gronkowski's right knee with such force that it spun the 6'6", 265-pound tight end around like an Olympic diver, his head smashing into the turf so hard it knocked him unconscious. When he awoke to see his parents and the Patriots' training staff in the locker room, Gronkowski learned he had a serious injury, later diagnosed as a torn ACL and MCL. He recalls thinking, Why is this happening again? Why me?
Gronkowski needed to wait a month for the swelling to subside before having surgery. The day after the operation he looked at physical therapist Ryan Donahue and asked, "Am I ever going to play again?" Gronkowski had undergone five surgeries the previous two seasons, four that stemmed from the broken arm and one, in June 2013, to repair a herniated disk in his back. But those injuries did not compare in recovery time, rehab and career-threatening scope to the knee injury.
Gronk's comeback was fueled partly by his work ethic and partly by genetics. Donahue rehabbed Gronk at the Andrews Institute in Gulf Breeze, Fla., for two weeks postsurgery and was so dumbfounded by how little Gronkowski's quad muscles had atrophied after the operation that he pulled aside legendary surgeon James Andrews to show him. Gronk also brought a sniper's focus to each tedious rehab session, which began with quad-muscle flexes and then progressed to simple leg lifts. Five or six days into his rehab, Gronkowski began trending back toward his usual puppy-dog optimism. He worked up to reps on a recumbent bicycle and soon requested a higher level, but Donahue held him back. To challenge himself, Gronkowski curled 35-pound barbells while working his leg on the bike. "He felt like he had to earn everything, which I really admire," Donahue says.
After the Andrews Institute rehab, Gronk moved to Miami for the off-season. Every weekday for three months he worked with physical therapist Ed Garabedian at Doctors Hospital in Coral Gables, while periodically checking in with Patriots trainer Jim Whalen. Garabedian is considered to be a knee Yoda: He has guided Frank Gore, Edgerrin James, Willis McGahee and Fred Taylor back into form after ACL injuries. On some mornings Garabedian arrived before 7 a.m. to see Gronkowski waiting for him. Other days, Gronkowski would call and say he didn't feel like coming, only to walk in the door a minute later saying, "Gotcha!"
To break up the monotony of rehab, Gronkowski took his own party to Miami. Bummed by the lack of music at the hospital, he brought in iStation speakers to stream '80s tunes. Garabedian could usually tell if Gronkowski had gone out the night before, as his knee would be swollen from standing for hours, but he stresses that the tight end was a diligent patient. Gronkowski's work led to a recovery whose only comparison in terms of speed and effectiveness—he was essentially back in full form in nine or 10 months—is Adrian Peterson's return in 2012. "Medically speaking, we expected him to be playing and effective," Donahue says. "But as far as being an MVP candidate, that's unheard of."
HEADING INTO the 2010 NFL draft, Gronkowski was a vexing prospect for Bill Belichick to evaluate. Gronk had starred during his first two seasons at Arizona—catching 16 touchdown passes—but missed his entire junior year in '09 with a lower-back injury. He still received a second-round grade, a testament to his athleticism and production. Belichick notes with his trademark Saharan wit that spending 10 or 15 minutes with Gronkowski may not create the impression that he's a consummate pro. ("It might be a little bit different," Belichick says, flashing a millisecond smile. "Potentially.") Belichick's homework included a 15-minute call with former Wildcats coach Mike Stoops, a notoriously frank evaluator, who offered an unwavering endorsement: "Don't get lost in his awkward silliness," Stoops recalls saying. "It's not immaturity. He's a great competitor."
When Gronkowski arrived for his predraft visit in New England, the Patriots simulated the team's classroom experience. O'Brien and fellow assistant Brian Ferentz taught him blocking schemes, which Gronkowski absorbed and then demonstrated after ripping off his coat. "We were laughing our asses off, he was blocking the hell out of us," says O'Brien, now the Texans' coach. By the end of the meeting, Gronk's yellow dress shirt was untucked and stained with marker from the grease board. And the Patriots were sold, trading up to get him in the second round, one of Belichick's shrewdest moves.
Since New England fully implemented Gronkowski into its offensive game plan in Week 5 against Cincinnati, the Patriots' offense has averaged 34.5 points per game (excluding the Week 17 finale when Gronk rested), compared with 17.8 when he was out or limited. Brady compliments Gronk's improved understanding of coverages and his ability to make "adjustments to adjustments to adjustments." Tight ends coach Brian Daboll says Gronkowski sees coverages from corners, linebackers and safeties, depending on the opponent.
Gronk's value to New England may best be quantified by a third-and-goal play from the three-yard line against the Dolphins in Week 15. When Gronk split wide right, just a few yards from the sideline, he pulled Miami safety Reshad Jones away from the middle of the field with him. Jones needed to shade over the top to help linebacker Dion Jordan, who couldn't expect to guard Gronkowski one-on-one. With a gaping hole in the defense Brady checked down to a handoff, and running back Shane Vereen slithered into the end zone for a touchdown. Gronk can neuter a defense without coming close to the ball. "We're watching greatness," says Gronk's fellow All-Pro Darrelle Revis. "Tony Gonzalez. Antonio Gates. He's in the same shoes with them. He's a problem child out there."
Don't be surprised if that problem child reappears in the Super Bowl, Sinners Bus and all. And don't be afraid to jump aboard and crack a beer. After all, Goon is driving.