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A massacre has just occurred at a ritzy restaurant in northern Miami. The assassin—a man beast of 265 pounds with a tree-trunk-thick neck—is sawing mercilessly into the pile of bloody flesh. “I usually don’t cut it before I eat it,” he admits. A speaker trembles with the heavy bass of a Whitney Houston dance remix. His voice rises an octave as he tears a particularly large chunk free and says: “Sorry! That was intense.”
Watching a 6’6” professional football player have his way with a 14-ounce New York strip is a brutal experience, but New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski has a hard time dialing back his intensity, even when he’s not playing football. Still, the herculean force he brings to the dinner table—evocative of his take-no-prisoners approach on the field—is misleading. In reality, he is the gentlest of giants, with kind eyes, a dopey grin and the ambiguous sort of accent that sounds, at first, midwestern, but is really the product of upstate New York.
At the age of 26, Gronkowski, a newly minted Super Bowl champion, has already locked in a six-year, $54 million contract—the most lucrative deal for a tight end in NFL history. He’s set several all-time records for his position, cementing a reputation as the best tight end in the league, if not the best tight end to ever play pro football. That’s no small feat, considering he’s suffered (and bounced back from) two major injuries that threatened to ruin his career.
But as much as he’s been lauded for his remarkable talent on the field, Gronkowski’s extracurricular behavior has garnered even more attention. If quarterback Tom Brady is the Patriots’ demure sophisticate, well, Gronkowski is his fratty, fun-loving foil. And fans can’t get enough of him. He has become something of a pop-culture phenomenon: Gronkowski’s post-touchdown tradition of football spiking (and spiking other things, like bouquets, hockey pucks and cakes, off the field) has inspired a viral video trend called “gronking,” whereby fans film themselves spiking inanimate objects. He is the subject of an erotic fan-fiction novel that was an Amazon Kindle best seller. He travels around town on “The Sinners Bus,” his very own partymobile; it has nearly 11,000 followers on Twitter. A sports website, BarstoolSports.com, perhaps put it best: “He is the most uncomplicated, endearing meathead in the history of the NFL.”
On any given day, Gronkowski—who usually goes by “Gronk”—might be found offering lap dances to women at nightclubs, twerking courtside during a Clippers game or being showered with champagne on a college coed-packed yacht. His antics have, unsurprisingly, spawned critics—people who question his dedication to playing football. And that drives Gronk crazy. He’s living every 26-year-old guy’s dream right now, and he’ll be damned if anyone tries to take that away from him.
“There’s definitely a time to party and a time to focus on work, but you need to let loose a little bit so that you can go back on Monday feeling refreshed and motivated to work hard again,” he says. “People act like dancing is breaking the law and partying is a crime. Everyone thinks I’m in trouble 24/7, but what have I really done besides dance?”
It would be impossible to wholly understand the essence of Gronk without first considering his childhood. He was the second youngest in a family of five brothers, which meant that life at the Gronkowski residence in Buffalo, New York, was akin to Animal House, but with more bulk and less booze. Rob’s father, Gordy, played college football, and his sons, as luck would have it, inherited his golden ticket in the genetic lottery. (Today, the average weight among them is around 250, and all are over six feet tall.)
The Gronk household was a breeding ground for athletic talent—the basement boasted a full-size gym, and the backyard was decked out with a tennis court, a baseball field, basketball hoops and a hockey net. While Diane, the family matriarch, provided the fuel—she’d spend the entire day in the kitchen whipping up enough chicken parmesan to feed an army—Gordy provided the fire. In the backyard, he would run tennis drills, baseball drills, football drills; consistently pushing his boys to be stronger, better, faster. Sibling rivalry engendered a spirit of healthy competition, and ultimately, three out of the five brothers made it to the NFL. None would be as successful as Rob, though.
Gronkowski landed at the University of Arizona, a Division I school that would serve as the perfect platform to showcase his talent. But a back injury sidelined him for the duration of his junior year, and the promise of being an early draft pick dissipated. He was selected by the Patriots in the second round of the 2010 draft, 42nd overall. “It was definitely a blessing in disguise,” he says. “Some players peak at 20 years old, so if you pick them in the top 10 just because they dominate in college, it doesn’t mean that they’re going to keep on improving. The way things ended up for me . . . I feel like it just happened for a reason.”
The Miami meat massacre has ended, and being that we’re in a steakhouse with an encyclopedia-size wine list, I suggest we do a tasting. A sommelier arranges 15 wineglasses on the table in front of me, Gronkowski and his childhood friend, John Ticco. “He’s humble because he had three older brothers, so there was always someone bigger and better than him,” says Ticco, a baby-faced real-estate broker who still resides in their hometown. “He’s just an average dude who grew up in Buffalo. I don’t think he’s ever forgotten that.”
The sommelier begins gingerly pouring. “This is 60 percent Malbec and 40 percent Cabernet,” he says, filling three glasses with an opaque red liquid. “You can tell by the color that it’s full-bodied, but the tannins give it a super-velvety feel, and . . . ” Gronk’s eyes have glazed over. He smiles politely, but his disinterest is palpable. “It would have been cooler to do a beer tasting,” says Ticco. Gronk nods in agreement. “My drink is usually vodka with water because it gets you hydrated and drunk at the same time,” he explains after the sommelier has departed. “I never drink wine. There’s only one wine I like, but I forget what it’s called. It tastes like Sprite.”
Check out the video below for a behind-the-scenes look at Gronk’s shoot with Bruce Weber