• Jeff Schober

Reflections on my time with Gronk

Updated: Apr 20, 2019

Writer shares behind-the-scenes stories of Patriots' newly retired star tight end

Rob Gronkowski in action. © photo courtesy of Jermone Davis

Thursday, July 11, 2013: Amid a gathered media throng inside Boston’s Barnes & Noble in the Prudential Center, Rob Gronkowski kept his expression flat, his chiseled face serious and stoic. He assured everyone that he was feeling better following surgery on his forearm. He made no comment about the recent arrest of teammate Aaron Hernandez. He was there, he explained, to promote the family’s new book, Growing Up Gronk.

Rob’s father and four brothers were on hand to sign books too, but nobody had come to see them. Rob was the draw. Then, as now, Gronk was a hero in New England and across the NFL.

He turned, looked over his right shoulder and said, “The author, Jeff Schober, is standing right there. Jeff did a great job writing it.”

None of the TV cameras pivoted toward me. I didn’t expect them to, nor had I expected Rob to acknowledge me. But that moment illuminated Rob Gronkowski’s selflessness.

Much has transpired since then.

When Gronk announced his retirement in March, two months before his 30th birthday, public reaction was loud. The New England Patriots are left with a giant hole in their offense, while opposing coaches and defensive players exhaled with relief. They won’t have to game-plan against Gronk any longer.

Friends and colleagues wondered what I thought about the retirement, knowing that I wrote a memoir about the Amherst family, published in 2013.

“What’s he really like?” I’ve been asked many times.

I don’t profess to know Rob well, but I did spend blocks of time with him for more than a year, beginning in 2012.

He was a kind, charming, fun-loving, generous giant. Shaking hands, I noticed the width of his palms was twice the size of mine. The Gronk most seen by the public was a fair depiction. He was an oversized frat boy, living his childhood dream of playing football, chasing girls, and having a good time.

Away from scrutinizing eyes, he was witty, quick with wordplay and always aiming for a laugh. That day at Barnes & Noble, for instance, when asked about the state of the NFL, he suggested that the question should be directed to league commissioner Roger Goodell, instead of him. “Roger that,” he concluded.

Gronk once left me a crude voicemail, the sort of thing I would expect from one teenage boy to another. Not offensive enough to get him in trouble, but also not the kind of thing I’d want my wife or kids to hear. And yet even then, I couldn’t really be mad at him, because it was silly. Gronk was living in his own world, loving life, and the world loved him back.

By the Numbers

Gronkowski spent nine years in the NFL, won three Super Bowls, and set 16 records, all with an easy smile across his face. He carved a career that most players only dream about. His athletic ability was off the charts. The dark side is that he’s endured multiple surgeries and punished his body to consistently achieve that high level. These are things athletes don’t worry about when they’re young, but time has a way of sneaking up.

Cynics claimed that Gronk was only good because of his six-foot, six-inch height or 265-pound frame. “If I was that big, I’d be good too,” people grumbled. But Rob’s high school and college buddies knew the truth. Few people saw him wake before sunrise to work out before class. Friends told me his dedication behind the scenes was unmatched.

Acknowledging bias, I believe he’s the best tight end to ever play football. His professional statistics, including playoffs, are impressive: 131 games, 602 receptions for 9023 yards and 91 touchdowns. Others may have higher numbers, but they played longer. For a time, Gronk averaged nearly a touchdown per game.

Being a Bills fan, I cringe whenever I recall that Buffalo selected Torell Troup in the second round of the 2010 draft, one slot ahead of Gronk…. (Your follow-up question of “Torell who?” is appropriate here.)

Rob Gronkowski at Williamsville North High School in May 2012. © photo by Jeff Schober

Rob Becomes "Gronk"

I was well underway with writing the family’s book before I finally met Rob in spring 2012. I had already interviewed Gordie, Dan, Chris and Glenn, the other four brothers, by the time Rob and I sat down together. On a sunny spring day, he hobbled on crutches, reluctant to talk about losing the Super Bowl. Despite a serious ankle injury, he had played in the big game just weeks earlier, and was in position to catch a game-winning Hail Mary pass — but it deflected and bounced away. He had not watched the tape and had no desire to. He was eager to heal and get back to work.

When I began writing the book, in August 2011, there were three Gronkowski brothers playing in the NFL. Rob had finished his rookie season the year before, catching 10 touchdowns; Dan was a tight end in Denver, and Chris was a fullback in Dallas. It had been 18 years since three brothers had played in the NFL at the same time. (Trivia question: who were they? The answer appears at the end.) ESPN had calculated the odds of this occurrence at 31 million to 1. A person had a greater chance of being struck by lightning than having two other siblings playing in the NFL.

I expected this would be the focus of the book. I hoped to write a sports biography that would stand the test of time. Neither turned out to be true.

This video ran on CBS in July 2013, in conjunction with the release of Growing Up Gronk:

In August 2011, sitting in his office at G & G Fitness on Transit Road in Amherst, Rob’s dad, Gordy, predicted that his son would catch 15 touchdowns in the coming season. I didn’t react, but silently scoffed. Ten touchdowns was notable for a wide receiver, but rare for a tight end. San Diego’s Antonio Gates had set the tight end touchdown record at 13, and here was a father boasting that his son, all of 22 years old, was about to do better. Uh huh.

That fall, Rob caught 17 TDs and rushed for one more, shattering Gates’ record. That showed what I knew.

In fact, that autumn, while I wrote each day, Gronk rapidly emerged as a cultural phenomenon. On the field, he dominated both as a receiver and as a blocker. The kid could do it all. After each touchdown, his signature move was to spike the ball enthusiastically. “Gronking” became a verb.

Unusual offers came to Rob all the time. I was shown a handwritten letter from a Boston high school boy, who asked politely if Rob could phone his girlfriend on her birthday just to say hi. A cell number was included. Another request was from a wealthy businessman who offered to pay Rob $50,000 if the star would come to his party for one hour and mingle with guests. Rob would be flown to and from the man’s home in a helicopter that would pick him up at the location of his choice.

Such things didn’t happen to normal people, but that was the world Gronk lived in. I’m not sure if he followed through on either of those requests.

Tale of Toughness

My favorite tale of Rob’s toughness came from a coach at Williamsville North High School, who had heard this story:

During his first on-field workout at the University of Arizona (where he played between 2007-09), the quarterback tossed the ball to Rob on a seven-yard out pattern. A star senior, who later became a first-round draft pick in the NFL, barreled across the field with fire in his eyes. He leveled Rob, then stood over him.

“Welcome to the real world, high school All-American,” the defender taunted. “That doesn’t mean shit here.”

Rob brushed himself off and got up. A few plays later, he caught a similar pass and dashed upfield. The same player was racing toward him. Rather than step out of bounds, Rob lowered his shoulder and blasted the defender, running over him. He then shed a linebacker’s attempted tackle. It took a third player to bring him down.

When Rob got up this time, he went over to the star senior, still writhing on the ground, and without a word, dropped the ball onto his chest.

It took six months to confirm, but I tracked down a college coach who had been an eyewitness. The story was worth the wait.

July 2013: The Gronkowski clan flanks a writer. From left: Dan, Gordie, Gordy, Jeff, Glenn, Chris, Rob. Jeff stands at six feet, so you can see how big the Gronkowskis are. © photo by Jeff Schober

And they thought I was tough!

On a Saturday in May 2012, I spent the day with the Gronkowski family — first at a photo shoot for Muscle and Fitness Magazine in the Williamsville North High School gym, and later at the family home, where ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap sat with Rob for an in-depth interview. Between stops, the entire entourage ate sandwiches at a local restaurant. Rob quietly paid the bill.

During Schaap’s interview, furniture was rearranged in the kitchen and family room. Boom microphones and temporary lighting were erected. Remaining family and friends were dispatched outside, to the court adjacent to the house, where we shot baskets and smack-talked one another.

I was sporting a black eye. One of the Gronk brothers asked what had happened.

“I was playing hockey the other day and got hit in the face with a puck,” I said. But before I finished the sentence, he interrupted, never hearing about the puck.

“Hit in the face? You’re still mucking it up at your age? Good for you, Jeff.”

My first thought was: “at my age?” What did that mean? Then I realized an NFL player believed me to be tough, so I didn’t correct the misunderstanding. (Soon after, however, I screwed a cage to my hockey helmet.)

Before I left, I thanked Rob for buying lunch. I had not heard anyone else acknowledge his kindness.

Quiet Generosity

Rob’s popularity would be the selling point for the book. Houghton Mifflin’s editor kept sending me notes that said “more Rob.” I intended the book’s focus to be about the family accomplishments, but when art and commerce intersect, one has to prevail. Growing Up Gronk had an initial press run of 31,000 copies, 17,000 of which sold in the first week. Gronk’s brand made money everywhere.

My most recent book is Justin Time, a memoir of Joe Lafferty. Joe is a Pittsburgh native who coached Rob during his senior year, when Rob played football at Woodland Hills High School. As part of that book, I interviewed Rob via phone in 2017. In the years since we had spoken, he seemed more mature. I thanked him for his kindness that day at Barnes & Noble. “No problem,” he said simply.

Justin Time reveals more about Rob’s quiet, behind-the-scenes generosity. There’s a great anecdote of how he hosted a young girl’s family at a Patriots game, then invited them back to his house for a post-game party. He didn’t do it for publicity or fanfare. Rob regularly gave away signed jerseys, scribbled autographs and put smiles on people’s faces.

So I’m happy for Gronk’s retirement. He made his mark on the game, walking away as a champion. He left on his own terms. Most importantly, he was kind along the way.

© 2019 by Jeff Schober

Trivia answer: Rich, Gary, and Brian Baldinger

[Thanks to Steve Desmond, Joyce Maguda, Harry Scull, Jerome Davis and Joe Lafferty for their contributions to this story.]


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