FOXBOROUGH – In the Land of the New England Patriots, anything that can be perceived as a boast is strictly verboten.
But perhaps, when you are a giant among giants in this land, with hands and a fun-loving personality that are equally larger than life, when you’ve slain records like so many mythical dragons, perhaps it isn’t really a boast.
Perhaps, it is simply the truth.
“I feel like every game I can be covered. Every single game I can be covered,” Rob Gronkowski says. “I believe the way to get open is it’s up to me. If I’m running sloppy routes, it doesn’t matter who I’m going versus, I’m not going to get open.
“(But) if I feel like I’m on, running crisp routes where I’m breaking at the right point, going to the right point, getting started at the right point, I feel like I can get open versus anyone at any time.”
A lot can happen to a young man in a short amount of time. Gronkowski and his family entered the NFL consciousness during the 2010 draft, when, after he hung up the phone with the Patriots, who informed him they were about to make him the 42nd overall pick, they gathered in a huddle and bobbed in unison. His brothers, his father, even his mother Diane: all bouncing and barking in happiness.
He was big, of that there was no doubt, and talented, but a back injury which sidelined him for his entire junior season at Arizona made him a bit of a risk for New England.
As a rookie, he certainly contributed, on the field and off. He had 42 catches and 10 touchdowns, but he also brought an endearing goofiness. When he mentioned to a reporter that year that breakfast cereal was one of his favorite foods, a couple of shipping boxes of Fruity Pebbles showed up in front of his locker a few days after the story went online, courtesy of the brand’s marketing department.
Gronkowski delighted in the gift, the simple gesture bringing a wide smile to his chiseled features.
But then last year – it is hard to pinpoint exactly when – Gronkowski took on an almost mythic status, his name shortened to one syllable, which has almost morphed into a verb: Gronk.
The Legend of Gronk grew and grew, almost with each passing week, with each thunderous spike of the ball after each of his many touchdowns.
In the Land of the New England Patriots, few had gained such stature, in this place where individual glory is often pushed aside for the greater good. Tom Brady, almost against his wishes, had become known for his accomplishments, his greatness under pressure acknowledged for leading his team to championships.
Brady has insisted that the victories were not his alone, that he could not have ascended to the top of the NFL alone, yet he has still garnered praise.
But Gronk – The Gronk to some – by sheer force of mass times acceleration and an infectious joie de vivre, became just as famous.
In November, he was flipped heels over head during a touchdown run against the Chiefs and landed painfully on his neck. He was wobbled for a second but held onto the ball of course, and then launched it off the turf to the delight of the Gillette Stadium crowd.
In December, he dove, dodged and dragged Redskins defenders on a long reception. In January, he suffered a pretty bad sprained ankle but had it taped up and insisted on staying in the AFC Championship.
He broke records, records that were set before he was even born.
In the offseason, the Legend grew larger still, hardly slowed by the surgery Gronkowski needed for the ligaments that were torn in that ankle.
But now comes the hard part, even for a giant among giants: he has to remain successful, he has to lace up his size-16 cleats and take the next step in his development.
Fittingly, that begins against the Titans on Sunday.
Not just getting to great but staying great, “It starts off with how you got here,” Gronkowski says. “I believe just starting out in the weight room, getting stronger, getting faster, working on your muscles so they can respond out on the field and then going out to the practice field, working hard, getting your routes down, getting your chemistry down with your quarterback, making sure you’re not going out and going halfway through – going full speed out there.
“And also the mental part of it, getting down the plays, knowing where to be, knowing who to block and all that, so basically how it got you there, working hard from the beginning, all the way from the weight room to the film room all the way out to the practice field especially.”
Being 6-foot-6 and playing last season at 275 pounds, Gronkowski doesn’t quite have the smoothness of a Usain Bolt, but he’s far from a lumbering behemoth.
“You’re dealing with a little bit of a freakish guy. I mean, even in our era of bigger players, faster players, 6-6, 275 for a tight end is a very, very big man,” says NFL Films’ Greg Cosell. “And obviously he doesn’t move like a big man. There’s a fluidity to his movement for a man that size. So clearly, what you have is just by his sheer size he causes matchup problems, because he caught a lot of balls where he essentially was able to box out defenders like a basketball player, where Brady would throw him the ball and because of his sheer size, the defender would be right there but he could catch the ball.”
(Gronkowski nods eagerly when asked if his experience in basketball has helped him now, from the footwork he used on defense translating to “a little shake” while he’s running a route, to increasing his vertical leap to that boxing out skill.)
“But the thing that ultimately makes him special as an individual,” Cosell continued, “is his ability to run for that size. So you know, when you see a guy that big who can line up detached from the formation and get a nickel corner, a slot corner, matched up on a vertical route and create enough separation vertically to get by him, there’s not a lot of guys who can do that. As a physical specimen, if you isolate his attributes, they’re terrific.”
The bar he has set for himself is high – even for a giant. Can Gronkowski really be expected to match or even exceed his stellar second season? The idea that he may not reach those heights again doesn’t scare him. Few things seem as though they would.
Numbers-wise, it may not be possible. He isn’t the only option Tom Brady has: there’s Wes Welker (almost Lilliputian next to Gronkowski), Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Lloyd, Stevan Ridley, talented players all.
Gronkowski knows this.
“Every year I try to get better as a player. In order to do that, I feel like I’ve got to work harder that the year before, and with this offense, there’s so many great weapons on this team, anyone can shine any week,” he says. “If I’m going out there and doing my job, doing what I’m being asked to do blocking-wise, pass-blocking, run blocking, doing what I’m asked in the passing game, I believe that we’ll be fine, we’ll be successful out there as a whole. And if as an offense we’re successful, I believe my role is being completed too.”
Cosell takes a less diplomatic tack.
“Numbers are a function of a lot of things. Let’s say the Patriots decide for whatever reason that they’re going to run the ball a little more. He might not have the same numbers, but that doesn’t mean he’s any less of a player,” he said.
“Gronkowski could catch 70 balls for 1000 yards and eight touchdowns, and he’s the same player he was last year. It just depends how the Patriots play their offense this year. You theoretically have three receivers – Hernandez, Gronkowski and Welker – that primarily work between the numbers. That’s really hard for a defense. You can’t double three guys. It’s not possible defensively to cover three guys. At most you can double two. At most.”
Gronkowski became famous quickly, but he can become infamous almost as quickly, known only for one amazing season when a football-loving land, both the Land of the New England Patriots and the country at large, embraced the giant among giants.
He has insisted since training camp began that all the extracurricular fun he had in the offseason is over and he has turned his attention fully back to football, back to getting better. His ankle, he says, is not a problem, and around 30 practices since camp began have been aimed at putting him in position to match, or maybe even surpass, the greatness of last season.
He may be outsized, but Gronkowski is not close to outgrowing the Land of the New England Patriots.
Asked what’s next for him he responds only: “Tennessee Titans.”
What comes after could be epic.