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Thursday, 3 p.m.: Gearing up
It's a fine April afternoon in the Bahamas, and I'm at the checkout counter inside Sunn Odyssey Divers, receiving equipment for a nerve-jangling assignment: help an NFL star cross "shark encounter" off his bucket list, with guidance from Discovery's Shark Week team. It's a tall order for me, a guy who wakes up afraid most mornings, and I'm second-guessing my life choices as Rob Gronkowski barges through the glass doors.
"What's up, Sam!" exclaims the ever-exuberant Gronk, who has been whisked straight here from the airport. The Patriots tight end looks carefree, per usual, like a guy who lives the life we would all want to live if we were rich, 29 and had a six-month offseason and the guts to crush it, even if that entailed scuba diving with -- "Wait," Gronk says, looking bell-rung. "What do you mean we're scuba diving?"
As it turns out, my guy was not fully aware, or more likely had just forgotten, that his shark encounter would take place well below the surface of the Atlantic. And I'm the one who breaks it to him. "Hold on," he says. "What are we doing again?"
As Gronk fires questions at his camp -- which includes best friend Robert Goon and manager Henry Penzi -- I slink away, secretly hoping that this whole thing falls apart.
Friday, 11 a.m.: Game day
The whole thing did not fall apart.
"Shark diving will be one of the biggest thrills of my lifetime," Gronk says when we meet the next morning at the dock in West End, the rustic, westernmost town on the island of Grand Bahama, just a Hail Mary pass from our hotel. He apologizes for yesterday's confusion, but the brain fart can be forgiven. Dude has a lot on his mind these days, including a three-day shoot here for "Monster Tag" (July 23), a Discovery Shark Week special -- not to mention the fate of his surefire Hall of Fame career. Gronk has announced that he'll be suiting up for the Patriots this upcoming season after months of indecision that begot speculation over his happiness in New England. Those questions can wait for later, though.
Presently, Gronk has a question of utmost importance as we board the speedboat that will ferry us to our demise: "I've never worn a wet suit before. If we pee ourselves, it'll stay in the suit, right?"
Friday, 3 p.m.: Pregame pep talk
We're anchored many miles off the Bahamian coast at a secret location known as Tiger Beach, which is the worst prettiest place on earth. Gronk has spent the past several hours learning the art of the dive, all while half a dozen fins circle our boat. Joe Romeiro, Discovery's shark guru, says they might belong to any number of indigenous species, including nurse, hammerhead, Caribbean reef, the "nasty, so snappy" lemon and this spot's aggressive namesake, the tiger shark. Neil Hammerschlag, a marine ecologist at the University of Miami, offers this snapshot: "Get bit by lemon and it's like you stuck your hand in a blender. A tiger's bite is more like a chain saw."
Honestly, I can't figure out which one is worse. "Wow, this is life-changing," Gronk says. I'm much more preoccupied with the possibility that this experience will be anatomy-changing.
Other things I wish I didn't know: We will not be inside a protective cage of any type; the sharks here max out at a whopping 16 feet in length; they can sense if you're "agitated," which agitates me a great deal; and yes, in case you're wondering, they do absolutely bite, although "it's usually a bite-and-let-go," Romeiro explains. "But if a tiger gets you, it's lights out. No mistakes can happen." Sweet! How is Gronk dealing with this madness?
"I'm just thinking about the San Jose Sharks," he says. "Did they make the playoffs?"
A storm is approaching, and we're told we can't stall any further, so, yeah, I don't know how else to say it, except to swallow my pride and spit it out: "Rob, you're twice my size. If things go wrong down there, can I count on you to help me?"
"Yes, I can suplex the shark," says Gronk, a WWE fan. "Flying elbow off the top rope!"
I'll take it.
"You jump in first," he says.
"The hell I will," I tell him, and I win: Gronk leaps and I follow while "screaming like a baby," according to at least one observer.
Friday, 4 p.m.: Kickoff
Splash! We're sinking through a turquoise wonderland of red snappers, giant groupers, rainbow runners and "Holy s---!" Gronk yelps through our wired-for-sound masks. "Look at all these sharks!"
Yeah, can't miss 'em. By the time we hit the sandy bottom 35 feet below the nearest life preserver, we're swarmed by more than a dozen of the bastards. The smallest is about the size of a free safety, the largest could swallow one whole, and every damn one of them looks like Jaws, or as Gronk puts it, "Hole-eee smokes, these sharks are scary!"
Now, here's a thing they didn't mention topside: The locals love trading helmet paint. "That shark just hit me in the head!" Gronk confirms. Another just stuck his nose in my privates, and now he's just kind of hovering there.
"Wow, that's a big one!" Gronk points out. I think I might faint. "No bulls----ing," Gronk says. "Do you feel safe?"
I'm thinking: no. What I blurt out instead, according to a transcript that will be provided later: "Everything's fine. Everything's fine. Everything's fine."
From here on out, I try to keep my eyes at least half-closed at all times, so here's Mr. Gronkowski with the play-by-play: "Did you see that shark wiggle his tail in my face?" [Sorry, missed it.] "Look at that one -- that shark has shark bites on it!" [Nah, I'm good, thanks.] "Sam, how do you feel with three sharks circling you right now? Pretty good?" [Seriously, did the San Jose Sharks make the playoffs? Anybody?] "All right, Sam, ready to get outta here before we get bit?"
Now that I can get behind.
"I think we've pushed our luck far enough, Rob," I tell him. "I'm ready to go."
Friday, 4:30 p.m.: Game over (for now)
Thank jeebus, we're alive! "Wow, that was nuts!" Gronk says as he flips his mask off his head. "The adrenaline rush was amazing." I'll admit, it was amazing. "Those things were bad boys," he says. And because we beat them (read: survived them), we must celebrate the Gronk Way -- by dancing what he calls "the shark dance." (If you wish to try this at home, do this: Put prayer hands above your head and then writhe like an eel. Congrats, you're doing "the shark dance.")
Friday, 9 p.m.: Postgame party
I'm celebrating another night on earth at the hotel pool when, in the distance, I hear what sounds like a live band. Then I hear what sounds like a Gronk. "Where's the music coming from?!" he shouts from the shotgun seat of a fast-approaching golf cart. "Let's go find it!"
He's on the move, peeling down concrete walkways and around hotel guests ("Watch where you're going, a--h---s!" yells one lady) before screeching to a halt at the boat dock. It's hosting a Junkanoo, a traditional Bahamian parade of two dozen costumed dancers, horn players and cowbell wailers. And in the center of it all is a dancing, high-fiving shark conqueror -- because where there is a party, there is a Gronk.
Saturday, 4 p.m.: Rematch
We're anchored in Little Bahama Bank, where the Discovery team and researchers from the University of Miami have reeled an 8-foot shark to the surface using the industry-standard, "shark-friendly" system of drum line and circle hook. "This thing's a beauty," Gronk says. "Let's get it out of the water and tag this puppy."
Gronk is helping researchers tag tiger sharks with electronic monitors as part of ongoing research to better understand their birthing habits -- all while trying to keep their snapping jaws more than an arm's length away. His job is to help secure the tigers with (I kid you not) his bare hands. My job?
"You're doing a good job watching," he says.
When it's over, Gronk looks beat. "Those things are all muscle, like a whole body of core," he says. "After holding a shark, I should be able to hold on to a couple of extra passes next season." On that note, now might be a good time to ask Gronk about his day job: "Are you happy knowing you'll be back with the Patriots next season?" His reply: "Want me to toss your ass in the water so you can get eaten up by the sharks?" Got it -- no Pats talk.
Sunday, 8 a.m.: A final dip
"Nothing better than starting your day at the pool," Gronk says of his morning ritual here. Today's pool workout includes a game of three flies up with half a dozen local kids. "A hundred dollars on this one!" Gronk shouts as he launches the pigskin. I can't tell whether he's joking, so I leap like an antelope and snatch the ball from the children like Jaws himself. (Sadly, Gronk was not serious.)
The kids don't know they're playing catch with an NFL All-Pro, and I so wish to tell them, but I know Gronk is enjoying his anonymity in this island nation. Soon enough, though, his peace is shattered by a tourist in a Gators cap. "Tell Coach to chill out and smile once in a while!" Gator Guy says. Gronk offers a polite chuckle.
I have a flight to catch, so I wish Gronk well on his final day of filming and thank him for the work trip of a lifetime.
"We're some pretty lucky guys, right?" he says. "You sure you don't want to come diving today?"
Or, at least, I think that's what he says. I'm already sprinting toward the airport.