PHOENIX — Rob Gronkowski was one of the last players to arrive for the Patriots' early morning Super Bowl XLIX media session Wednesday at their hotel, settling into his seat with a sheepish grin. When the man-child tight end is running late, the mind tends to wander to what he was doing the previous evening.
Was he sampling the abundant nightlife in Scottsdale? Was he imbibing beers at a fraternity? Or how about he was curled up with the Patriots' playbook? Gronk is the ultimate good-time guy, but he is also a smart guy with near total recall of defensive coverages and encyclopedic knowledge of the playbook.
"He is very studious. He takes his job very seriously," said fellow tight end Michael Hoomanawanui. "The way the defenses play him is different each and every week, whether it's single coverage, double coverage, triple coverage. Whatever it is, he can always recall the last team to do it, or if it's a team that we're playing, he can recall what they did last time. He's very good at that."
If you think the Big Fella just rolls in on Sunday and trashes opposing defenses like a spring break hotel room you're wrong. You don't score 55 regular-season touchdowns in 65 games in one of the more intricate offenses in the league with a quarterback who is a perfectionist without having a high football IQ. The Patriots don't play football for dummies.
Patriots fans looking for a reason to believe that this Super Bowl against the Seattle Seahawks will be different from the last time the Patriots were in the Roman Numeral Rumble, against the New York Giants in 2012, can point to a healthy Gronkowski, something the Patriots haven't had in the playoffs since the 2010 season.
The Patriots expect Gronkowski to be the difference-maker he was all season with 82 catches for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns, not the hobbled decoy he was in Super Bowl XLVI.
Gronk is a source of fascination because he has a demolition-derby playing style and an "Entourage" lifestyle.
Gronk isn't the life of the party. The party is his blissful life.
Like most great artists, Gronkowski, 25, is misunderstood. He has become a caricature, Foxborough's favorite fast-living, football-spiking frat boy.
He comes off as a lovable lug who butchers Spanish (Yo Soy Fiesta), enjoys shirtless dancing, and rolls around in a sports-drink-sponsored bus that is hedonism on wheels.
That party persona overshadows the intelligent, hard-working tight end who has remarkable recall of how defenses try to stop him.
"Not everyone has it. I don't have it," said Hoomanawanui. "I can tell you that, truthfully. Seeing all the teams that he has played and the way that they play him it's pretty miraculous."
It obviously helps that Gronkowski is a 6-foot-6-inch, 265-pound freakish force of nature. But there is a brain that goes with that brawn, and it processes the game quickly.
Otherwise the Patriots could not use Gronk in all the different places on the field that they do — as an in-line tight end, flexed out as a tight end, lined up wide like a wide receiver, in the backfield.
Gronkowski isn't going to win a Nobel Prize in physics any time soon (neither is your faithful correspondent). He isn't going to map the human genome. But he has an intelligence that belies his image as a lovable lunkhead.
"He is a smart player. He is a smart guy. He really is," said Patriots tight ends coach Brian Daboll, who thanks to Super Bowl week had his Bill Belichick-issued assistant coach gag order lifted.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady lauded Gronkowski for taking his game to the next level by studying the intricacies of coverages and leverage.
Gronkowski is far from the first athlete whose legend is tied as much to his indulgence as his ability. Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Joe Namath, the 1990s Dallas Cowboys, all played as hard off the field as they did on it.
And for marketing purposes, the Gronkowski family has played up Gronk's playboy persona.
Gronk has fun with it, too. He was asked why it is news when he parties, rippling through the Internet like a racy celebrity photo.
"Because I'm a baller," said Gronkowski. "Is that a good answer?"
Yes, it is.
But the insinuation is that Gronkowski doesn't put in the time and preparation to be great. It just happens, naturally.
Gronk's favorite party is still the one that takes place on the football field, and his favorite VIP area is still the end zone.
Gronkowski said people do underestimate how seriously he takes the game.
"I would say so," said Gronkowski. "I mean, I feel like some people just look at it like you go out there on game day and play, but that's not really the case. You always have to be taking care of your body throughout the whole week, in the morning and all the way through nighttime, getting sleep.
"So, people kind of underestimate the hard work and dedication that goes into the week to get prepared for the games on Sunday."
A quiet night at home with the Patriots' playbook, followed by eight hours of sleep, is not how most people envision Gronkowski spending his evenings.
"No, I don't think so," said Gronkowski.
But Gronk said the perception doesn't bother him.
"People can think what they want to think," said Gronkowski. "As long as I feel like, personally, I'm doing my work during the week then I'm satisfied with myself that I'm working hard, that I'm helping my team out."
Go ahead, think Gronkowski is just a crash-test dummy. He's no dummy at all.
He's smart enough to be laughing all the way to the bank, the end zone, and maybe a Super Bowl title.