As was once said about a former Patriots long-snapper who enjoyed the party scene, it seemed like Rob Gronkowski would have shown up for the opening of an envelope this offseason. That’s how ubiquitous the Patriots nonpareil tight end was on the celebrity circuit.
Gronk became as adept at finding the limelight as he was at finding the end zone, which he did 18 times last season. He spent his down time overexposed and underdressed.
There he was going viral with a shirtless dance routine that would have made Jonathan Papelbon blush after the Patriots’ crushing Super Bowl loss to the Giants. There he was on the cover of ESPN the Magazine, buff in the buff. There he was on a lamentable TV dating show (is there any other kind?) called “The Choice.” There he was mugging with his brothers on the red carpet at the ESPY Awards. Forbes Magazine even reported that Gronkowski and his family were working to develop a reality TV show, a testosterone-fueled version of the Kardashian clan’s drivel.
It was all enough to make one concerned that the team’s fun-loving tight end loved fun more than football. Not to worry Patriots fans, Foxborough’s favorite frat boy made it clear Friday he’s focused on football, football, football, a point Gronkowski hammered home like one of his famous Richter Scale-registering spikes.
“It’s training camp time. When it’s football, it’s all football, nothing but football,” said Gronkowski. “I’m always excited for football. I’m glad to be back. I missed the locker room. I missed the teammates. I missed competing against the defense.”
The Summer of Gronk is officially over, so says the man himself.
“Just here to play some football, baby,” said Gronkowski. “You know it.”
Fame can be intoxicating and Gronkowski wasn’t really in a mood to rehash his bender. When asked about the favorite part of his offseason, he replied how hard he had worked out to prepare for the season.
Hopefully, this is more than lip service because there are only two things that can derail Gronkowski from becoming the greatest tight end in the history of the game. The first is a major injury. The second is himself.
Gronkowski already experienced the former when he was chopped down like a giant redwood by Baltimore safety and perpetual Patriots antagonist Bernard Pollard in the AFC title game, leaving him with a left ankle injury that made him a nonfactor in Super Bowl XLVI and forced him undergo surgery in February.
After two days of camp Gronkowski said the ankle was 100 percent, and he looks like the same uncoverable weapon he’s been his first two years in the league, during which only Calvin Johnson has caught more touchdowns than Gronk’s 27.
The latter only takes place if Gronkowski lets the spoils of fame spoil his talent, either through indolence or disinterest. Otherwise he is the tight end answer to Randy Moss in 2007, a player who is just so physically gifted, he’s a mismatch for opposing defenses.
“He’s still a beast. He’s Gronk. He’s a freak of nature,” said fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez.
No one is saying Gronkowski has to become a recluse in the name of Fort Foxborough. He is a gregarious, wealthy, 23-year-old professional athlete. He should be able to capitalize on his fame and, ahem, enjoy himself — in moderation.
The season Gronkowski had last year, catching 90 passes for NFL single-season tight end records of 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns, was proof that being a prolific Patriot and displaying a personality are not mutually exclusive.
It would be a shame if the Zubaz-pants-wearing, broken-Spanish-speaking, gridiron goofball part of Gronk was completely stamped out, and he became another Bill Belichick automaton in public. But the Patriots have a lot invested in Gronkowski. They signed him to the most lucrative extension for a tight end in NFL history (six years, $54 million). They can’t risk him derailing his career because he’s too outgoing and going out too much.
That’s why, as reported by the Globe, the team had to make it clear to him that it was time for Gronk Gone Wild to go away, although Gronkowski pleaded ignorance about any confab with the team about his behavior.
“You can ask the coaches that,” he said. “It’s football time and that’s all I’m worried about, football, football, football, getting better on the field every day. All I focus on is football. I love the game, and that’s my No. 1 passion.”
Were there enough footballs in that sentence for you? You could practically see the wheels spinning in Gronk’s head as he carefully chose his answers to each question, peppering in the word football as many times as he could.
Hernandez joked he had just as much fun as Gronkowski this season, just in a more private fashion.
“I just chill. I don’t pay attention to all that stuff, but I’m sure he was having fun,” said Hernandez when asked about Gronkowski’s offseason exploits. “I definitely get laughs when people tell me about some stuff, but I’m more laid back, chilled and relaxing.”
Just like he does on the field when Tom Brady calls an audible or there is a shift in coverage, Gronkowski is going to have to adjust to his enhanced notoriety. The throng of media around him Friday was reminiscent of what Brady draws, and in a sports-obsessed region, Gronkowski has already achieved cult-figure status.
With his immense physical stature, sometimes it’s easy to forget Gronkowski is still growing into adulthood.
Gronkowski acknowledged that having every move you make end up as possible fodder for someone’s cell phone camera is a bit strange, but he said he just has to remember what earned him fame in the first place — football.
The Summer of Gronk is over. The Education of Gronk is ongoing.Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and can be read at www.boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.