It's good to be Gronk

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It was a simple pitch from the quarterback. The Clarence (N.Y.) High School running back hadn't even received the ball yet, but Williamsville North defensive end Rob Gronkowski couldn't contain himself.

He burst out laughing from clear across the field.

"I cracked up," Gronkowski said, "because I knew I could level him."

"Rob's eyes were the size of Coke bottles," recalled Williamsville North coach Mike Mammoliti. "He got to that poor kid before he hit the corner. It was right in front of our bench, and he just blew the kid up. Flattened him, and got up laughing.

"Then he turned and ran back to the huddle. No showboating or anything. Just a big kid playing football and having a blast."

Gronk hustled back to the huddle for one reason: to register bragging rights. The mantra among the defense that year was to lay out as many guys as possible.

"I couldn't wait to get back in there and ask my boys, 'Did you see that?'" Gronkowski said.

Did you see that? It has been a common refrain throughout the brief and glorious career of New England's prolific 6-foot-6, 265-pound tight end, who, in tandem with the golden arm of Tom Brady, will lead the Patriots against the dangerously unpredictable Denver Broncos on Saturday night.

Whether driving defenders into a fence 10 yards past the field, as he did in high school, or snagging 12 catches for 143 yards and a touchdowns against Oregon, as he did at the University of Arizona, or scoring touchdowns for New England with bruising NFL defenders clinging to him like pieces of lint, Gronk has turned heads with his ferocious intensity and disarming grin.

He has melded greatness with goofiness, developing a reputation as a Pro Bowl talent with a free-spirited, frat boy mentality. Who has more fun than Gronk? While coaches laud his intelligence and his ability to pick up complex schemes, they scratch their heads upon learning of curious decisions like posing shirtless with porn star BiBi Jones, who happened to be wearing nothing other than his No. 87 game jersey.

Gronkowski thought it was hilarious; coach Bill Belichick, not so much. A closed door meeting and a contrite apology soon followed.

"Rob's a very serious player on the football field, but like a lot of kids, he's a happy-go-lucky guy, and that's led to some suspect choices at times," said Mike Stoops, Gronkowski's coach at Arizona. "Rob likes to have fun. He's not a malicious kid at all. He's just a little quirky."

Stoops said that after Gronkowski's pre-draft interview with the Patriots, Belichick called Stoops with some reservations.

"I think Coach Belichick was thinking, 'What the heck is this kid all about?'" Stoops said. "I told him, 'The kid is smart, tougher than hell, and more competitive than just about any player I've been around.' I told him that Rob might be the best tight end I've ever seen."

The tight end thrives on contact, a byproduct of the beatings he endured as the fourth in a line of five physical boys in his family. As a 4-year-old, Rob would flail helplessly while older brothers Gordie, Dan and Chris pinned him, administered a series of excruciating charley horses, then released him only after he conceded defeat.

Within seconds, of course, little Robbie was back at it with brandished fists, pummeling his brothers, unwilling to concede anything.

"I'd go at anyone," Gronkowski said. "I took all of my brothers' bull. It made me who I am."

Rob's father, Gordon, a former offensive lineman for Syracuse who was revered by his sons, hurled tennis balls at them at close range with the aim of teaching them toughness, perseverance and hand-eye coordination. By the time Rob was 13, he was inching closer and closer to the Jugs machine his father bought them, hauling in bullets from just 12 yards away.

Diane Gronkowski's full-time job was keeping the two freezers and refrigerator in the garage and the main fridge in the kitchen stocked with hearty meals for her five sons with bottomless appetites. They blew threw two six-pound bags of Sahlen's hot dogs for a snack, then an hour later were clamoring for dinner.

Robbie played football, hockey, basketball and baseball, often devouring his meals in the car between practices. Diane would cook his favorite, chicken soufflé, cover it in foil, throw a fork and knife in the back of the van, then serve it to him after football -- en route to hockey.

Some early morning skates often came before 5 a.m., so to save time Rob's mom showered the night before and slept in her clothes.

"It was the best chance I had of getting them there all on time," she explained.

Once in a while, one of her older sons would remember to thank her. But not Robbie. Never Robbie.

"He was always tough on me," Diane Gronkowski said. "Of the five of them, he gave me the hardest time. He was always pushing, always challenging."

At Williamsville North, where he spent the first three years of high school and played on both sides of the ball, there was the time he scored all of his team's points in a 14-13 win that propelled it into the playoffs. Gronkowski caught a TD pass, sacked the quarterback for a safety and ran in a fumble recovery for a touchdown.

"They tell the big guys to just fall on the ball when it comes free," he said, grinning. "Not me. I picked that thing up and brought it to the house."

One season, Williamsville North was trailing rival North Tonawanda late in the game. It was fourth-and-2 from the 16-yard line and Gronkowski's team needed a touchdown.

"Get me the ball," he said in the huddle.

They did -- and he scored while dragging three defenders into the end zone with him.

During basketball season, as North Williamsville's best and most dominant player, he delighted in ferociously dunking the ball -- his hoops version of a spiked ball in the end zone now affectionately referred to as "Gronking."

One time when his team was on the road, he jammed the ball so hard he shattered the backboard.

The opposing team sent his parents the bill.

Gronkowski was a legend in upstate New York, a Bunyanesque athlete who intimidated with his size, speed and sports acumen. He was almost always cheerful, popular among classmates and teammates.

The only time his mood darkened was when opposing players tried to take him out.

"There were a lot of cheap shots laid on me," he said. "They couldn't stop me the clean way so they chop blocked me, went after my knees. I didn't like that."

It was good to be Gronk -- until his life took an unexpected turn shortly before his senior year. A crude email regarding a teacher circulated through school and eventually found its way to the principal's office. A group of boys were involved, but the email was on Gronkowski's account, so it earned him a one-game suspension.

"It wasn't anything illegal," Diane Gronkowski said. "It was stupid kids doing stupid stuff, and Rob paid the price."

In the midst of the embarrassing incident, Gordy and Diane Gronkowski informed their boys they were separating. Gordie Jr., Dan and Chris were already out of the house. The youngest, Glenn, would stay with his mother in New York, but Gordon, who was in the midst of building a successful business in fitness equipment, took Rob with him to Pittsburgh. Gronkowski enrolled at Woodland Hills, and when his father made an off-hand comment to a reporter about the switch resulting in better football, Rob was ruled ineligible, since changing schools could not be predicated on athletic advancement.

A subsequent appeal explaining his parents' predicament was successful. Robbie packed up his stuff and left the only place he'd ever known, hugging his kid brother and watching his mother through the car window as he and his father drove away.

"It was not a great feeling to have to say goodbye to her," Gronkowski said. "She's always been there for us. I didn't like leaving anyone in my family."

There would be no more pregame meals of spaghetti and meatballs with garlic bread, no more quick dinners in the car, no clean laundry, no words of encouragement that he'd barely noticed until his mom wasn't there to provide them.

"It was very tough on Rob," Mammoliti said. "His parents were doing what was best for the family. But he was sad. He walked out with me to my car to say goodbye and he put his hand on my shoulder. It was so big it draped from one end to the other.

"He said, 'Coach, I gotta go. I'm so sorry. I don't want to. But I've got to.'

"I really felt for the kid.'"

The three-hour drive to Pittsburgh afforded Gordy Sr. enough time to recharge Robbie with excitement about a new town and a new program that produced nine NFL players, including recently retired Miami Dolphins linebacker Jason Taylor and Steelers safety Ryan Mundy.

Woodland Hills coach George Novak can still recall the day Gordy and Rob walked into his office.

"I thought they were college coaches," Novak said. "Even as a 17-year-old kid Rob looked exactly like he does now -- a physical specimen with a big smile on his face."

On the first day of training camp, as his new teammates eyed him warily, Gronkowski walked into the cafeteria, strode toward one of linebackers and plucked his cookie off his tray. He bit the cookie, then put it back.

"There was this kind of awkward silence, then Rob started laughing," said former teammate Rontez Miles. "It was quite a way to introduce yourself to the team."

Noah Taylor, Jason's younger brother, first noticed Gronkowski in the weight room, where he unofficially annihilated the school's lifting records.

"He was the guy who could keep piling weights on the bar, then lift it and make it look like nothing," said Taylor, who promptly nicknamed him Drago after the imposing Rocky adversary.

Taylor and Gronkowski became fast friends. When his dad had to travel for business, Gronk bunked with Noah.

As he did in New York, Gronkowski played both sides of the ball. Taylor recalled a game against Plum (Pa.) when Gronkowski winked at him and said, "Watch this."

"He plowed straight through the offensive line and threw the quarterback into the end zone," Taylor said. "I was like, 'Whoa, big Rob.'"

A second nickname was born. While performing his tight end duties, Big Rob drove one defensive player into a fence 10 yards past the end zone.

Did you see that?

"He was drive-blocking players 20 yards down the field," Novak said. "He'd push them so hard they'd fall down and he'd collapse on top of them.

"One of the officials actually came over to us and said, 'I know your tight end is a helluva player, but you've got to tell him to ease up. He's beating up these other kids.'"

In spite of his athletic success, Gronkowski still ached for home. He missed his friends, his little brother, his mother. Diane came on weekends, brought her signature rum cake, but it wasn't the same. Taylor said Gronkowski tried in vain to persuade his father to let him return to Williamsville North once football season ended.

"There were days where he definitely moped around," Taylor said. "He missed his friends. His family was everything to him. He's like me -- a mama's boy."

That revelation was shocking to a mother whose fourth son had never given any indication that he appreciated her considerable sacrifices.

"Maybe going away like that made him realize how much he had," Diane Gronkowski said. "I'm not talking material things. I mean a lot of love and support.

"Maybe it took him having to do it without me to realize I wasn't so bad."

Following a decorated senior high school season, Big Rob joined brother Chris at Arizona. Stoops became enamored with Rob's soft hands, football intelligence, footwork and detail in executing the perfect block. Chris, a fullback, often lined up next to Rob while his brother, smiling, would plow a clear path for him.

"When the two of them were out there together, Rob was at his best, and so were we," Stoops said.

Rob Gronkowski submitted a sophomore season in which he caught 47 balls for 672 yards and 10 touchdowns, breaking Arizona's game, season and career marks for tight ends. He was a bona fide NFL prospect, a sure first-round pick -- until he suffered a back injury that required surgery.

"We helped him rehab for a month and a half," Stoops said, "but he wasn't the same player."

Robbie had already decided to go pro and trained with Chris for 2½ months. They worked out six hours a day, but Big Rob was having trouble. His back had healed but his burst was gone.

"He couldn't run under a 5.0 [in the 40-yard dash]," Chris said. "He had no vertical, couldn't jump. I was getting kind of worried for him."

"I was running super slow," Gronkowski said. "Chris thought I was done. Then one day at the end of February I woke up and my body felt good.

"I was just so happy. I was faster than my brother again. I got all my moves back. I told him, 'Brother, I'm back, and now you're done!'"

Gronkowski held his own personal pro day. He lined up for the 40 and was clocked at 4.65 seconds. A Raiders scout clocked him at 4.5, brandishing his watch for the other incredulous coaches to see.

"I don't know how his body recovered like that," Chris said. "To be honest, it was kind of a miracle."

The Patriots stole Big Rob in the second round (it rankles him to this day he wasn't a first-round pick). He impressed his coaches with the ease with which he learned the playbook. He endeared himself to his teammates with his work ethic and locker room antics. He developed a cult following among his adoring public, which can't wait to see what Gronk comes up with next.

"At one time I wanted to be a WWE wrestler," he mused. "I still do. I want to go in the ring once and mess around and jump off the ropes and do a Stone Cold stunt."

"I told Rob whenever he builds his first house, there's no doubt there will be a big slide with a bunch of plastic balls in his living room," Mammoliti said. "He said, 'You know what, Coach? That's a great idea!'"

Gronkowski is coming off a season in which he set NFL records for touchdowns (17) and receiving yards (1,327) for a tight end. Stoops said the size and strength have always been there, but now he sees more precise routes.

Did you see that? Against Kansas City in Week 11, Gronk literally front-flipped himself into the end zone.

Diane Gronkowski's favorite Gronk moment was in Robbie's rookie season, when he went horizontal before sticking the ball over the pylon. Naturally, he got up smiling -- and spiking.

The mother visited her tight end on Christmas Eve, but with five boys all still involved in sports on a professional or college level, a joint family celebration for the holidays is all but impossible.

Diane started a new tradition last winter. She and her boys congregate at her home in Florida to celebrate Christmas in February.

The February gift Robbie wants desperately is a Super Bowl ring. For all his football adventures, he's yet to win a championship at any level.

"I'm trying," he said, his trademark grin swallowing his face.

Rob Gronkowski is only 22 years old. He is an NFL star, a marketing dream, the best Gronk of them all.

But mostly, he's still just a big kid who loves his mom, playing football and having a blast.

Longtime Boston journalist Jackie MacMullan is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.