Thursday, March 28th, 2019

The One And Only

Gridiron

The One And Only

Gridiron NFL

Rob Gronkowski grew up in a sitcom without the cameras and script. The second youngest of five testosterone-fuelled brothers, his family home had four freezers, a built-in gym and a father who would line his up sons against a wall and whack tennis balls at them with a racquet.

Babysitters ran a mile such was the chaos. In between making daily banquets and cleaning up after her brawling brood, mother Diane acted as a taxi service across the state of New York. “It was competitive throughout,” Gronkowski tells Gridiron. “If we were playing video games, if we were outside playing basketball there were always fights starting. If it was video games, if someone started to cheat a little bit you’d be whipping the controller at each other.”

The unique environment and parents’ endeavours proved a perfect storm for Gronkowski, whose antics are such that the phrase ‘Gronk’ became a verb. Then a brand. He has won two Super Bowls with the New England Patriots, a team as synonymous with success as they are for begrudging respect through gritted teeth. And somehow, we still root for the 28-year-old, a child with a mischievous grin trapped in the body of a man.

That body underwent its third spine surgery in December, this time on a herniated disc, and it is reasonable to ask how much more of a pounding it can take. A hit to the chest from Earl Thomas in November’s defeat by the Seattle Seahawks caused a lung contusion, while his season was ended a fortnight later against the New York Jets. But Gronkowski is no stranger to pain. It’s something he’s been happy to deal with since the age of four, when he would actively covet beatings from his older siblings. 

The spirit among Gordie Jr, Dan, Chris, Rob and Glenn was fostered by Gordy Gronkowski Sr, a former Syracuse offensive lineman with a prolific blood line. Papa Gronk – owner of G&G Fitness, a 14-strong chain of gym stores – was so keen for his offspring to be comfortable with balls flying at them that he would first throw tennis balls from close range. As his sons advanced, he began to use a racquet.

A successful children’s baseball coach (he won championships 11 out of 12 years), Gordie built a gym in the basement of his Buffalo home and would carefully monitor his sons’ progress, opting for steady progress on the bench press rather than being a backbreaking taskmaster.

And, as one sibling bulked up and motivated another, the programme reaped rich rewards. All five boys received athletic scholarships, each playing sport professionally. The Los Angeles Angels drafted Gordie Jr; Dan lists the Detroit Lions, Denver Broncos, New England Patriots and Cleveland Browns as his former teams; Chris played for the Dallas Cowboys, the Indianapolis Colts and the Denver Broncos.; Rob was drafted by the Patriots in 2010; and Glenn – or Goose – is there too after a year with the Buffalo Bills. 

The sporting dynasty was harvested at Williamsville North where Rob spent his first three years of high school, coached by Mike Mammoliti. “The other brothers before him, Danny and Chris, from a physical standpoint were always so much bigger at the high-school age than any of these other kids,” he says. “Rob played football for us as in a modified programme when he was 15 years old. He was a taller, skinnier kid. As he got a little bit older, he just started to blossom. He just started getting bigger and bigger. And then he just exploded from there.

“He played offense and defense for us. We brought him in at the end of ninth grade (age 14-15) to kick for us because he had such a big foot. He was just a straight down pro kicker. He could kick the ball a mile. And then by the following year, that’s when he came up with us to the varsity level and played on both sides of the ball.

“He played a little bit of everything: football, basketball, baseball. We are a three high-school district. There’s a lot of built-in rivalry because all the kids grow up together in the same area. And because of where their houses are located they get to go to one of those three high schools. So anyway, they were in pre-game warm-ups at one of our rivals, Williamsville East – we are North – and during warm-ups he went to dunk the ball and shattered the glass on the backboard.

“It wasn’t like he was doing it intentionally, it was the right place, the right time. And the right weak spot on the backboard. The people from East were not too happy. They thought he did it on purpose and all this nonsense, but it was more innocent than anything else.”

The story embodies the TV-worthy life of the Gronkowskis; Mammoliti laughs as he recounts their formative years in a madhouse with food bills regularly reaching $600 a week. “Aside from anything else it was a fairly normal household, obviously with the exception of five giant boys who were just eating machines. Their mom was amazing. You can imagine how much she would cook for five boys who were essentially 6ft 5ins, 200lbs each. A couple of them were smaller than that but they were high-school boys. You know, bottomless pits. They had a refrigerator in the house and then they had three more in the garage. They were big, big meals. Pastas and lasagnas and hot dogs and hamburgers. The quantity is the key.”

Such efforts doubtless still earn Gronk’s appreciation even as he ascends to superstardom on and off the gridiron. Certainly, that’s the case with Mammoliti – who reveals a side to his former pupil many don’t see. “We talk probably every couple of weeks. Most of the time it’s text because that’s easier.”

Understandable given Gronk’s high-octane lifestyle. “He’s a man who is all over the place,” adds Mammoliti. “In the offseason, he is really all over. He’s on the coast, he’s on the other coast. He’s here, there and everywhere. Sort of like Superman, you know.

“That’s the thing. Obviously not everybody gets the relationship some of us have. He’s always been more than gracious to me. In 2015, he invited me out to Denver for the playoff game. We flew out and he put us in a hotel room, to the game, the whole nine yards. He did an introduction for my wife for an event that she had. All it was was just call him, ‘Rob can you do something for me’. We have always been like that. I try not to ask for too much, because that’s not the way I want it. I think he’s appreciative of that. He’s been great to me.”

The stories are no surprise to those inside the New England Patriots’ organisation. Gronkowski is known as the most generous ‘giver’ on the team, spending large periods of his free time at team-organised charity events. For some, these are a chore. Not Gronk.

“He really is who he’s always been,” reveals Mammoliti. “I don’t think he’s changed, he’s true to his friends. He is fiercely loyal to his friends. I think everyone will tell you that. He is essentially a big kid. When you see somebody like that walk in a room. When the college coaches used to walk in in recruiting time, he’d walk in the door and here’s this 6ft 6ins, 250lb kid and you’re thinking, ‘Wow, look at the size of this man’. And he was only 17 years old, he was still a kid! He’s going to do what 17-year-old kids do. He’s true to himself like that.

“I always thought when he bought his first house he would have a big slide going down the middle with a ball pit at the end. And it would be like some big kid’s funhouse. Which he still probably might do. It would just be fun and he’s non-stop. He’s like the Duracell Bunny. I don’t know where he gets it from. He can’t sit down.”

Gronkowski would leave Mammoliti’s tutelage unexpectedly before his senior year. Gordy and Diane were in the process of divorce and, with the oldest three brothers having flown the coop, Glenn stayed with Diane in Buffalo with Rob accompanying his father to Pittsburgh where his fledgling business was flourishing.

The big Gronkowski subsequently walked into the office of George Novak, coach at Woodland Hills High School since 1987. Novak called it a day last October after 30 seasons which saw 11 former Wolverines make it to the NFL, a record of which he is suitably proud. But one made an instant impression.

“I was sitting in my office here looking at the door and his dad came in first. He was a big guy and Rob came in right behind him. I looked over and thought he was a college coach or player. He was just a monster. When his dad said he was moving into Woodland Hills and his son was going to be a senior, I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me’. My jaw dropped, you know.”

“He was a man playing with kids. He dominated both sides of the ball. Unfortunately, we weren’t even a passing team. You know. We didn’t have a passing quarterback,” Novak sighs, ruefully. “That was unfortunate for him. But he did a great job when we did throw the ball to him. He was a great blocker. A team player. Defensively he was outstanding. I think he could play defensive end in the NFL, he was that good.

“And he also starred on our basketball team. I remember one game against our arch-rivals Central Catholic he had like five dunks in the game. And on the baseball team, he hit the ball further than anybody ever did here. Over the fence onto a roof we have. He was just phenomenal at all three sports.

“And the best thing is that he was a great kid. He was a nice kid. He enjoys life, enjoys having fun. Good student. Well behaved in school. Never got in trouble or anything. He enjoyed joking around and that, but he enjoyed life. He had fun. He was like a big kid. Everybody liked him. All the teachers loved him. A lot of them still stay in touch with him. He was just a phenomenal kid. You don’t come into contact with kids like him that much in your life.”

You can hear the warmth in Novak’s voice as he talks about Gronkowski, who listed his hobbies as “working out, playing sports, chicks” in his yearbook.  Even though he pined for home and missed the family environment – not to mention his mother’s cooking – Gronkowski put his heart and soul into football.

Novak adds: “He was new to us and we were new to him, but he became part of our family the kids all warmed up to him, the girls, the guys. He was friends with everybody at school. Teachers, principals. Everybody loved Rob.

“His dad was a big part of it. He’s a character too. I think Rob takes after his dad. I’m so proud of him and I really enjoy watching him grow and develop as a person into a respected man. His career is phenomenal but just as a person he’s done a great job. It’s a remarkable family. His mom drove down from Buffalo every game and she made me a rum cake that was very good. Nice family, I met all the brothers.

“All the boys have done well in football and baseball. Their dad was a sportsman; when they were growing up in the house in Buffalo he had a basketball court there, a swimming pool, a baseball field, pitching machines, throwing machines. You name it, they’ve got it. And the boys all took full advantage.”

After a year of pining for something resembling normality, Rob opted to join brother Chris in Arizona. The pool parties were said to have something to do with it and, in his two years as a Wildcat, he posted 1,197 yards from 75 receptions with 16 touchdowns. A back injury ruled him out of his junior year and Gronkowski saw his draft stock fall from one of the top prospects coming out of college to the 42nd overall pick in 2010.

Many felt his back was a ticking timebomb waiting to explode, that he had little chance of ever fulfilling his boundless promise. Entering his eighth season, he has proved the doubters wrong – to a degree. “I would say that is definitely part of my motivation. I would say that everyone likes to prove people wrong every time they get a chance. Throughout my whole career just when people say, ‘He can’t do it’ or, ‘He’s not going to come back’, or whatever, I mean it’s always good to take that and use it as motivation.”

Gronkowski is New England’s all-time touchdown leader with 68 and holds NFL records for the most receiving yards and scores in a single campaign for tight ends. In fact, whenever he has been on the field, No.87 has been nothing but dominant. The issue, though, is that he isn’t always on the field, having seen multiple campaigns ended by a variety of injuries. The most recent was last season yet, despite his absence, the Patriots didn’t lose a game and won another Super Bowl.

That led many to believe he may not be long for New England, particularly if murmurings of unhappiness at his salary grow louder. And yet, those suggestions ignore that Gronk – for all it appears otherwise – is almost a perfect Patriot. Sure, there are few other players on the roster who spend their offseason skippering a party boat, or are the subject of an erotic novel, yet there are also equally few who perform to Gronk’s level or work as hard as he does at the game.

New England know his worth, and proved as much by restructuring his contract this offseason. Gronkowski can now earn double what he was slated for by activating a bunch of performance-related incentives. The caveat is a familiar one. It’s the one that will define how his career is judged by history: he must stay healthy. “You’ve got to step up. You’ve got to keep rehabbing hard. You’ve got to keep working hard. You’ve got to work twice as hard as the year before. And you’ve got to prove everyone wrong that you’re just as good as before.”

If he can, Gronkowski – already a likely Hall of Famer – could easily be remembered as the greatest tight end to ever don pads. He’s already arguably the greatest talent; however, history remembers longevity too. Not that he’s overly worried by his legacy. “Nah. I don’t think about that, man. All I think about is trying to be the best player I can be every single day, every single week, every time I step out on the field.”

With Gronkowski back on the field, adding the cherry on top of a roster that looks easily the NFL’s best, New England are again expected to be battling it out for the Lombardi Trophy come February. Few would bet against Bill Belichick and Tom Brady lifting a sixth Super Bowl title, least of all the man who could provide the X-factor to their latest run. “It’s just an honour to work with two legends,” adds Gronkowski. “You just learn so much about the game of football every day you step in the building with those two.”

Yet Belichick and Brady aren’t the only legends in Foxborough. Little about his journey or approach is conventional, but Gronkowski’s place in the pantheon of the NFL is secure. Forget the adult fiction, wild parties and brand, the 28-year-old could yet be remembered in equal esteem as his head coach and quarterback.

All that’s left for the star of this script-less sitcom is to write the perfect ending.

This article originally appeared in Issue XXXI of Gridiron magazine – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE

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