ORLANDO, Fla. -- He paces the hallway just after 6:45 a.m., carefully studying the day’s script. But when it’s time for Rob Gronkowski to perform, it’s not running routes or catching passes from Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady, it's acting in a television commercial for USAA.
Situated in a makeshift dog park at Universal Studios theme park, Gronkowski delivers his lines with his beloved French bulldog, Ralphie, in his lap while one of the crew members quietly whispers, “He’s getting a little sweat on his brow.”
That’s when the reinforcements -- two makeup artists -- come in, while Ralphie gets some shade and a quick drink.
One makeup artist powders Gronkowski’s face, while the other one gives him a new gray shirt to change into. As Ralphie is whisked off for a quick break in the shade, Gronkowski and the director, Kreg Lauterbach, go back and forth on whether to say “dog” or “doggie.”
“It’s a lot more fancy in this industry,” said Gronkowski, who turned 33 in May. “It’s just grind, grind, grind, in football, and out here it's like it's like you're like a supermodel or something.
“I don’t have to be in good shape at all. I got people feeding me, and if I'm slow, I'm slow. It doesn't matter if I'm quick or not. So it's wonderful.”
After announcing his retirement and doubling down on it two weeks ago after 11 seasons in the NFL -- nine with the New England Patriots and two with the Buccaneers -- Gronkowski now has his sights set on new endeavors, leaving behind a legacy guaranteed to land him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Establishing his identity away from football -- even amid criticism he was too free spirited and too much of a partier early on -- helped Gronkowski cultivate projects in television and entertainment. He has appeared in television shows, such as “Entourage” and “Family Guy”; put on mega parties, like “Gronk Beach” at Super Bowl LIV in Miami; and done ads for USAA, Tide, Lyft, Cheerios, Nike, Dunkin’ Donuts, T-Mobile, Body Armour and JetBlue. His personality promises many more opportunities.
“Gronk knows his brand,” said Maxinne Gonzalez, USAA director of video production. “I think Gronk knows the persona. He knows himself very well and delivers that. And I think people resonate with that.”
According to Gronkowski, he gets a handful of requests every couple of months from companies interested in him representing their brands.
“He’s really good at what he does,” Lauterbach said. “He brings an energy level, that even in the hot sun, we’re working with babies and dogs, and there’s challenges in those. He keeps the spirits lifted on it.”
As he continues his work in commercials, Gronkowski will also appear in the "80 for Brady" film, reuniting with the quarterback and with former Patriots teammates Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. He also plans to host the USA Today High School Sports Awards at the end of the month.
He’s taking a more active role in brother Chris Gronkowski’s Ice Shaker company and wants to join his father's G&G Fitness Equipment company.
“I’m not like really retired,” Gronkowski said. “It’s just from the game of football. ... It’s not from life. ... When people start retiring, they start dying.”
But is Gronkowski really done with football after agent Drew Rosenhaus told ESPN’s Adam Schefter he could see the tight end returning and Gronk's girlfriend, Camille Kostek, echoed the same sentiments, according to reports, this week?
What if the Bucs make a championship run? What if Brady comes calling?
Gronkowski answered those questions Monday morning.
“Obviously I’ll answer [the call]. It’s the greatest of all time calling me. We have a great relationship, on and off the field,” Gronkowski said. “We’re friends. ... But I wouldn’t go back to football. I’m all set. I’m enjoying what I’m doing, and I’m enjoying trying to find what I really, really want to do next.”
So why retire now, with Brady pledging at least one more year?
“It was my decision to stop. It was definitely time. It just felt right,” said Gronkowski, whose career ends with four Super Bowl rings -- three with the Patriots and one with the Buccaneers.
He leaves in good health and on his own terms. That’s no small feat for a man who broke down in tears recalling the night of the Patriots’ Super Bowl victory in 2019 – when he couldn’t get out of bed because of a quadriceps injury (he would have a liter of blood removed from the muscle) – or who was forced to miss five regular-season games last year because of cracked ribs and a punctured lung.
Gronkowski, who has had nine surgeries and a handful of documented concussions with "who knows how many minor ones,” came of retirement in 2020 to team up with Brady in Tampa despite the injury risks.
“I feel good. I feel really good. And it feels good to feel good,” said Gronkowski who once suffered a torn ACL, a torn MCL and a concussion in the same game.
“Every time I stepped out on the football field, I literally left everything I had. If it was at practice, or if it was at a game, and if I wasn't feeling my best at the game or practice I still gave everything that I had every single time. So it's not like I'm looking back, you know, wishing, ‘Man, I should have done that. I should have done this.’ I mean, there's things obviously you would change. I mean, but that's learned. That's how you learn in life. You change it for the next time.
“But I definitely feel accomplished. ... I feel accomplished with my career, and, actually, it went way better than I ever thought it could have.”
He acknowledged a seldom-talked-about reality for many professional athletes: Retirement can be scary. You go from having every aspect of your life mapped out -- every meeting, every practice, every appointment -- to an open schedule with a blank canvas. You also go from doing something at the highest level and achieving worldwide recognition to wondering what's next.
“If you've been playing sports since you were 2 years old, that's all you know, you know,” Gronkowski said. “It got you a full ride into college and got you into [the] pros to make a decent living, and then send you off from there -- and then you really don't know what to do ... because athletics have gotten you that far. You rely on that to make all your connections in life.
“It definitely can be a scary route. I mean, I'm not really scared about it -- I'm prepared. I feel like there's a lot of business opportunities. I know I want to step into the business world.”
Gronkowski said keeping active and getting involved with many projects in the offseason gave him a sneak preview of life in retirement, and he credits his brothers -- all former athletes -- for their guidance in transitioning into the business world. He made over $70 million from the NFL but barely touched it, relying instead on his endorsements.
“They took their work ethic from the football field and brought it to the next chapter of life, and that’s something you’ve got to do,” Gronkowski said. “You can’t be laid back if you want to be successful in the next chapter of your life. You’ve gotta be all-in, and you’ve gotta grind.”