“Gronk” has become part of the public lexicon and is recognized as having two distinct meanings:
“Gronk” on the football field is a biohuman, wrecking ball of a Patriot who dominates opponents at will. And off the field, “Gronk” is a party-loving, barbell-lifting, bro’s bro whose life motto was neatly summed up on a pair of size-16 cleats he autographed and gave away earlier this year to a Massachusetts high school football player:
“Stay hyped! Get chicks!”
It’s a meathead image that Rob Gronkowski has crafted thoroughly over the last five-plus years, since he became a superstar tight end with the Patriots. The word “Gronk” instantly conjures images of his party bus with stripper pole, or Gronk shirtless at the pool in Vegas, or Gronk hosting a women’s football camp last week.
But Gronk has everyone fooled. He may not be working toward a PhD in astrophysics, but beneath the teenage humor and superjock veneer is a guy a lot more studious and perceptive than he lets on.
“You know, Rob’s a smart football player,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said recently. “He understands a lot of things about the game — not just the X’s and O’s but also how he’s getting matched up individually and what our opponents are trying to do given the situation.
“Forget about the talent and all that, but just as the way he goes about his job, the way he works, trains in the weight room, his physical conditioning, his mental concentration and focus and desire to do well and improve — I mean, very, very good.”
Away from football activities, Gronk is a fun-loving goof and has a hard time turning it off. When asked last week if he remembers what he scored on the SAT, he says, “100 percent.” When asked if he has gotten any closer to getting his college degree since leaving the University of Arizona after three years, he responds, “My brother’s got two degrees. He got one for me.”
He smiles when he says this, knowing how dumb he sounds. He’s in character.
Gronk has said in previous interviews that he was a member of the National Honor Society in high school and that his favorite subject was math. He’s smart enough to put most of his football millions away in savings and investments and live off his endorsement money. He wrote in his autobiography this summer, “It’s good to be Gronk” — which he claims he didn’t read to completion, of course — that his mother was a stickler for making sure he completed his homework and studied for his tests.
“If you meet Rob for 10 or 15 minutes, you might get an impression that may or may not be what it’s like to have him in your office, in a classroom and on the field for six, seven hours a day,” Belichick said back at the Super Bowl.
Gronkowski wouldn’t be such a dominant football player if he were as dense as he tries to portray himself.
“Rob has great football instincts,” Patriots tight end Scott Chandler said. “And you’re not as successful as he is if you’re just out there running around. You could tell he knew what he was doing.”
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said that in the Patriots’ offense, the tight end position is the closest to the quarterback in terms of the volume of information.
The Patriots require Gronkowski to serve as a sixth offensive lineman in the run game instead of playing only as a glorified slot receiver, like his tight end contemporaries Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham, and Julius Thomas.
On top of it, the Patriots move Gronkowski all over the formation, and give him a lot to remember — left slot, right slot, right boundary, left boundary, backfield, motion, audibles, hot reads, unspoken communication with Tom Brady, and more. Gronk handles it pretty seamlessly.
“We move him around in a lot of positions. He has, really, a lot to learn,” Belichick said. “You have all the protections, you have all the running game, and you have routes from the sideline to the middle of the field to occasionally even in the backfield. There are really no plays off mentally for that position.”
Gronkowski has 16 catches for 308 yards and four touchdowns through the Patriots’ first three games, well on his way to earning his fourth Pro Bowl and third first-team All-Pro selection in just six NFL seasons.
And Gronkowski isn’t just a pretty face who catches touchdown passes. He is the most complete offensive player in the NFL, and there’s no one else close. In addition to his monster receiving stats, Gronk grades out as the best run-blocking tight end in the league this year by the website Pro Football Focus, far outpacing anyone else.
Offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo noted that “Gronk had some major blocks” in the Patriots’ 51-17 win over the Jaguars last Sunday. Gronk also has been kept in as a pass blocker on 16 snaps this season.
“He’s done a good job of really understanding everything — leverage in the pass game, leverage in the run game, who to block, who not to block, who to run a route off of, hand placement, angles,” tight ends coach Brian Daboll said. “And a guy who works really hard and takes a lot of pride in his role as a run blocker.”
And it’s not like the coaches have to explain everything to Gronk six times, either.
“Rob’s very attentive, very coachable,” Belichick said. “You tell him what you want him to do, he works very hard to do it the way you want it done. He’s a smart football player.”
Gronkowski isn’t on Brady’s level as far as being a football savant, but after five-plus seasons playing in the same offense he has picked up a lot of nuances about reading coverages, getting open, and exploiting opponents.
The volume of information and responsibility was “definitely” overwhelming in Gronk’s rookie year, but now the offense is second nature.
“As time goes on you’re getting more knowledge of your playbook and football, and you just pick it up a lot easier,” he said. “Lining up everywhere is just second nature to me now.”
Gronk will continue to be “Gronk” off the field — chugging beers at the Patriots’ Super Bowl parade, hosting a three-day party cruise in February, shaking his butt on “Family Feud.”
But when it’s football time, the Patriots see a much different “Gronk” behind closed doors.
“He comes in early, takes care of his body, and mentally we ask Rob to do a lot,” Daboll said. “He’s a guy that busts his tail, is always prepared, asks a lot of questions, does a lot of work. True professional.”