FOXBOROUGH — As the media waited patiently for him, Rob Gronkowski wrapped up training camp practice Friday on the nearby field, working one-on-one with Tom Brady, catching passes from the quarterback.
When Gronkowski entered the tiny space reserved for him in the middle of the crush of reporters and cameras, the tight end spoke of how happy he was that he was able to be on the receiving end of those passes again.
"It's feeling good out there, running routes, getting balls thrown, and it just feels great to be out there with my teammates, being in the huddle, catching balls from Tom Brady — it's a dream come true again. It feels like it got taken away and now I feel like I got it back, so it's awesome," Gronkowski said.
As he continues to round back into top form after tearing the ACL and MCL in his right knee Dec. 8, Gronkowski acknowledged that he's not yet 100 percent, noting that he hasn't been working against the defensive players, just running routes as he continues to strengthen his knee and get back into football shape.
But when he is back to 100 percent, don't expect the 6-foot-6-inch, 265-pound former All-Pro to change his hard-charging playing style.
"Nah, I ain't changing that one bit," he said. "I'm going to go full speed out there and I'm going to keep smashin' and dashin' everything I do, so . . . maybe if it's not necessary one single bit I'll go down, but if I can make some plays, make some extra yards, get in the end zone, I'm definitely going to go full speed and I'm going to take the hits."
Despite playing in just 50 regular-season games, Gronkowski has caught 42 TD passes from Brady — the most Brady has delivered to anyone. But when asked about Brady relying on him, Gronkowski brushed aside the query.
"It's a team game, we all rely on each other to the max; if one person's not doing their job, then the whole team's not doing their job. We're all a part of the offense, every single player that's out there at the same time," he said.
But Gronkowski did say, albeit a bit hesitantly, that he does believe he can pick up where he left off in terms of his level of play. In six-plus games last season, the tight end made 39 catches for 592 yards and four scores. His 15.2 yards per reception established a career high.
He expects he'll be in full pads Saturday, as all Patriots players will, in part because that's another step in the process: Running with pads on is different than running without them.
Gronkowski spoke in long, run-on sentences Friday, a reversal from his weekly chats last season, which became repetitive and curt as he restated his goals of getting better every week and taking things day by day as he recovered from arm and back surgeries. He returned to play in Week 7.
Stories surfaced that while the Patriots' medical staff had cleared Gronkowski to play in early October and that he was performing well in practice, Gronkowski's circle pressed for him to sit out a couple of extra games.
Friday, the tight end denied that was the case, and said everyone is in agreement on the timetable of his current comeback.
"We're all on the same page right now, the team, the organization, myself, the trainers, the doctors, we're all on the same page, and it's just to keep working hard," he said. "We've got so long until the first preseason game, until the first game of the year, and just as long as we're improving every single day, going out there hustling, getting in shape, running routes, getting football-acclimated, it feels good to be out there and I'm not really worried right now and I'm just working hard every day."
Gronkowski said he's preparing to play in the regular-season opener Sept. 7 at Miami, and he spends his days focused on getting to that point.
"Every single day just giving it all I've got in the rehab room, out here on the field, to improve my knee strength all around and preparing myself and listen to my trainers, what they have for me, so I'm ready to go when it comes down to it, and hopefully I am," he said.
After four surgeries on his left forearm over seven months (from November 2012 to May 2013), Gronkowski underwent a fifth surgery prior to last season, on his back. Then came the surgery to repair his knee.
For someone whose goal in life is seemingly to have as much fun as possible, Gronkowski didn't have much of it as he dealt with his myriad health issues.
The Summer of Gronk "was boring this year. I was rehabbing every day, it was miserable, hopefully that never happens again, and I don't wish nothing on anyone like I had in the past few years," he said.
"I'm just looking forward to the future and getting back on the field and making some plays and helping my teammates out."