Rob Gronkowski breaks the mold

LONDON -- The New England Patriots have become synonymous with a business-first, buttoned-up approach. It's a culture that hard-driving head coach Bill Belichick has acknowledged isn't for everyone.

A player enters the locker room and he almost always falls into line. If he doesn't ... well, he usually isn't in the locker room for very long.

Then came Gronk.

When the Patriots selected tight end Rob Gronkowski in the second round of the 2010 NFL draft, 42nd overall, it seemed like two different worlds were colliding. Remember how Gronkowski was jumping up and down on stage with his family and friends, swaying back and forth in one big huddle, before putting on a Patriots helmet and mugging for the cameras as if he were some kind of crazed WWE star?

It was frat-party-style fun. It was different. It wasn't anything seen before from a Patriots draft choice -- or really any draft choice, for that matter.

Yet, as we saw Sunday at Wembley Stadium in London, and Saturday at a FanFest rally in Trafalgar Square, fun and the buttoned-down Patriots do mix when it comes to Gronkowski.

Make no mistake, Gronkowski has fallen in line in adopting the "Patriot Way." But he's also still his playful self at times, such as Sunday following his two touchdown receptions.

"He's a funny guy, always coming up with something," defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said.

What Gronkowski came up with Sunday was a "Nutcracker dude" touchdown celebration, an instant classic meant to replicate a Buckingham Palace guard that had players -- and even Belichick -- laughing. Yes, that was Belichick smiling at the end of his postgame news conference, describing the atmosphere at Wembley and how it was enjoyable, before singling out one player.

"I think Gronk liked it," he said with a chuckle.

Gronkowski's party started with his 7-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter as he was falling to the ground. Then he popped up, straightened his back and took four steps forward, then a few steps back, before delivering one of his trademark spikes. Boom!

"I don't know what the heck he was doing," quarterback Tom Brady said with a smile.

That's the thing about Gronkowski; he not only produces touchdowns, but also smiles.

Everyone needs someone to lighten the mood from time to time, and Gronkowski, in addition to his role as record-breaking, matchup-nightmare tight end, is that player for a Patriots team led by a coach that the Times of London referred to as a "grumpy genius."

It works.

"He's one of those guys that you can't get mad at," said Wilfork, who is now in his ninth year with the team. "I always say, if somebody doesn't like him, that person has the problem, because he's very likeable."

Part of the reason it works in the Patriots' culture is because Gronkowski keeps producing. He puts football above the humor, and teammates and coaches have taken notice that he's playing in obvious pain (hip/back injury) while still logging a whopping 94 percent of the snaps at the midpoint of the season.

Gronkowski might not be as explosive as he was last season, when he broke the NFL record for a tight end with 17 touchdown receptions, but he has totaled 43 catches for 580 yards and seven touchdowns this year. No one on the Rams was saying Gronkowski has slowed down after he torched them with eight catches for 146 yards and two touchdowns.

Meanwhile, it wouldn't be a surprise if there is a sudden surge in No. 87 Gronkowski jerseys sold overseas in the coming weeks after Gronkowski stole the show at Saturday's FanFest in Trafalgar Square.

When the NFL picked players from each team to go onstage at its annual rally, it was a given that Gronkowski would be one of them. Gronkowski played to the thousands in attendance by spiking a microphone, which had teammates, Belichick and owner Robert Kraft laughing. Gronkowski later called it his favorite spike of the weekend.

More fun. More smiles.

"He actually seemed very calm while he was speaking, so I asked Bill if he fed him something, a calming influence," Kraft said at the rally, playing along. "But Gronk showed his true colors."

The true colors go well with Patriots red, blue and white.

It's been only two-and-a-half seasons, but Gronkowski has become a household name in New England. You see his face on billboards, he's a spokesman for Dunkin' Donuts among others, and his jersey is one of the hottest sellers. Remember all the concern about the "Summer of Gronk" a few months ago and the thought that maybe the team wasn't thrilled with all of his extracurricular activity?

That's a distant memory now, if it was even true in the first place. It's the same old Gronkowski, producing big spikes and celebrations on the field, and smiles from his teammates and coaches off it.

That's a good thing, even for a successful, buttoned-down, business-first team like the Patriots.