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While at Harvard, Cameron Brate was a Gronk fan. Now, he’s a trusted target for Tom Brady and the Bucs

Cameron Brate caught four passes last week against Washington, each for a first down.Rob Carr/Getty

When Cameron Brate was cleaning out his closet last summer, nestled in the back was a Patriots jersey: No. 87, Rob Gronkowski.

“I sent him a picture,” Brate said. “I asked him if I should donate it to Goodwill or throw it away.”

Brate opted for the former, but it should come as no surprise that he once owned a Gronkowski jersey. Back in 2010, Brate’s freshman year at Harvard overlapped with Gronkowski’s rookie season in New England. He started following Gronkowski’s quick rise as one of Tom Brady’s favorite targets — and became a big fan.

At the time, Brate was a 6-foot-5-inch tight end from a suburb of Chicago, trying to carve out a role alongside fellow tight end Kyle Juszczyk in Harvard’s 12-personnel offense.

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Crimson coach Tim Murphy remembers Brate as a “long, lean kid” who wasn’t heavily recruited out of high school. The hope, according to Murphy and Crimson offensive coordinator Joel Lamb, was that Brate’s size and athleticism would translate to the college level, both in receiving and run blocking.

Brate red-shirted as a freshman before establishing himself the following year, catching 25 passes for 386 yards and 7 touchdowns. During a game against Brown that season, Brate made a great catch on a ball thrown behind him, withstood a strong hit from the safety, maintained possession as he hit the turf, bounced right up, tossed the ball to the official, and signaled the first down.

“I kind of turned and said, ‘Wow, what do we have here?’ ” recalled Murphy. “And he just took off from there.”

Now, more than 10 years after they each arrived in Massachusetts, Brate and Gronkowski are teammates with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The road to the NFL wasn’t easy for Brate, who is in his seventh season after going undrafted in 2014.

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Cameron Brate hauls in a 36-yard reception agains Yale in a 2013 contest.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

While at Harvard, he landed summer internships at a law firm and a hedge fund in Boston, with interest in a career in finance should football not pan out.

But Brate and his college coaches believed the NFL was attainable. He finished his Harvard career with 91 receptions for 1,381 yards and 18 touchdowns, earning unanimous first-team All-Ivy League honors and Academic All-America awards along the way.

In 2013, Brate watched Juszczyk get drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in the fourth round, which offered more encouragement.

“I said, ‘Listen, Cam, I think you realize by now, if Juice can do it, you can do it. You can absolutely play in the NFL,’ ” recalled Murphy. “He took it to heart. He was motivated, I think, by our faith in him, and he was motivated by Kyle making a really good splash as a rookie in the NFL.”

The Buccaneers signed Brate in the weeks following the 2014 NFL Draft, but Brate, low on the depth chart, was eventually relegated to the practice squad and later released. He then spent a week on the New Orleans Saints practice squad before the Buccaneers came calling again, this time to welcome him to the 53-man roster.

“It’s all about character,” Murphy said. “People can say, ‘Well, you’ve got a great backup plan. You’ve got an Ivy League degree, you can go work in finance on Wall Street or do whatever you want to do.’

“But that’s not what Cam wanted at that stage of his life. I think it was just his grit, his resilience, and his mental toughness that got him to where he is today.”

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Brate has since made the most of his time in Tampa Bay. Among the highlights? The first Harvard-to-Harvard touchdown pass in the NFL, when he and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick connected for a 10-yard score in October 2017. The football they used now sits in Murphy’s office.

As Rob Gronkowski looks on, Cameron Brate spikes the ball after scoring on a 3-yard touchdown pass against the Chargers in October.Mark LoMoglio/Associated Press

This season, with a loaded offense featuring Gronkowski, Chris Godwin, Mike Evans, and Antonio Brown, Brate has still been a reliable option for Brady, catching 28 of his 34 targets for two touchdowns and the best catch percentage (82.4) on the team.

Against Washington last Saturday, Brate caught four passes, each of which converted a first down.

“He gets these opportunities, but as we all know, it’s one thing to get these opportunities, it’s another thing for him to take advantage of them,” said Lamb. “I think that’s what happened to him last week. They’ve got so many weapons on that offense, defensively you can’t match up with all of them.”

Now that they’re teammates, Brate has called Gronkowski a positive influence, citing his “infectious” energy. He had always wanted to watch Gronkowski play in person but never did because Gronkowski was sidelined with a thigh contusion when the Buccaneers hosted the Patriots in 2017.

So, when they finally met during an informal workout last offseason, what was Brate’s first impression?

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“He’s huge,” Brate said, laughing. “People were talking about how he’s gotten smaller during the offseason. Then I met him. And he’s so much bigger than I am. Just, like, a massive dude.

“He’s really funny, just as advertised in that regard as well. We had a ton of fun working together in the spring.”

Gronkowski, of course, isn’t the only star teammate of Brate’s this season. Brate had also looked up to Brady for the same reasons many young players do — care for his body, meticulous preparation, and passion for the game.

When Brady reached out in the offseason, Brate had to check that the message was really from the six-time Super Bowl champion.

Cameron Brate looks for some open field in a game against the Lions last month.Al Goldis/Associated Press

“The first time he texted me, I had to get double confirmation from other people that it was actually Brady,” Brate recalled with a smile. “He said, ‘Hey, this is Tom. Give me a FaceTime when you can.’ So, I had to reach out to Chris and Mike and be like, ‘Hey, is this Tom?’ ”

Sure enough, it was Brady. And the awe factor didn’t wear off right away.

“The first time we actually threw with him, I was definitely star-struck,” Brate said. “As soon as we got to throwing and talking football, it was very natural.

“He’s just got a great demeanor about him, the way he leads, the way he talks about the game, it’s very easy to understand in that regard.”

After training camp, 16 regular-season games, and a playoff win, Brate isn’t star-struck anymore. He’s just doing whatever he can to keep Tampa Bay’s pursuit of the Super Bowl going.

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“For undrafted players, a lot of it is just opportunity,” Brate said. “Luckily for me, I was able to get an opportunity.”


Nicole Yang can be reached at nicole.yang@globe.com.