This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Dec. 22 Interview Issue. Subscribe today!
After two injury-marred seasons, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is back to being Gronk, making spectacular one-handed catches, running over defensive backs and entertaining everyone along the way. SportsCenter anchor Lindsay Czarniak sat down with Gronkowski to discuss everything from how he got through the tough times to what it feels like to -- seriously -- put a smile on Bill Belichick's face.
Czarniak: What is it like for you in Boston these days, just a normal day walking down the street?
Gronkowski: Sometimes it can cause a riot. People will be running all over the place. Sometimes you can put your hoodie up and sunglasses on and you can sneak through. But it can get crazy with everyone trying to take pictures. And there's Twitter these days, social media. Anyone can just film you and put you up on Twitter. So you have to know your surroundings and who you're with and who you're talking to.
I hear that doesn't stop you from working on your dance moves.
No, my dance moves are always working no matter where I am. Whether at the house or if I'm out, at the facility working out, practicing, you gotta get the dance moves right. They help out with your footwork.
They help with your footwork on the field?
I feel like when I do some dance moves during the week or at the house, I'm quicker on my feet. I can react quicker just from dancing.
Gronk, are you being serious?
Yeah, for real.
Yeah. Just move your feet, fast feet.
Including the playoffs, you missed 17 games the past two seasons because of a myriad of injuries. What was the hardest part about that for you?
The hardest part was just sitting at home and not being able to do anything about it. I'm not a guy who just sits there on the couch and watches TV all day long. I need to get up, I need to be active, I need to be doing things around the house -- working out, playing a sport, whatever. Just sitting there, I'm thinking, "Man, I just wish I could shoot hoops right now, or anything."
During that time, what was the lowest point for you?
After the knee injury last year. I had just come back from back surgery, arm surgery, and I missed a few games. I came back halfway through the season last year. When I went down with the knee, I didn't know what to expect. That night, I was thinking all these crazy thoughts in my head. "What's going on? Why is this happening? I just got back."
What was the biggest fear for you?
Am I ever going to be able to play football again? What's going on with my career? I was just thinking things like that. You've got tears going down your eyes. You've got your trainers right there and my parents right there. I was just thinking, "Is this it?" I didn't know what a knee injury was. I'd never felt pain like that.
What was it like in that room when you were being examined?
I remember I was on the X-ray machine after they carried me off the field on the cart. I mean, I kind of had a concussion too, so I really don't remember. But I was actually bawling out on the machine when I was getting X-rays on my knee. And I was holding on to my trainer's hand and my dad was right there and I was just bawling like, "Is this it? Am I done?" I barely remember any of it. I just remember those little stages of it, because of the concussion.
You actually said, "Is this it? Am I done?"
Yeah, I was thinking it. I was saying it right to my trainer. He was like, "No, man, you're going to come back stronger." When stuff like that happens, it's just crazy. You don't know what to think. Why is it happening to you? I had just worked my butt off to get back out on the field.
What did your dad say?
He was just being supportive for me, just holding on tight, trying to have a positive vibe about everything. Just saying that I'd be good and I'd be back and everything.
So then you did come back. What was that like?
You have no confidence when you come out of surgery because you can't really do anything. You're like, "Man, am I ever going to heal?" They're saying I won't be good for another nine months, seven months, eight months. Wow, you've gotta work out that whole time. You've just got to look at the positives and think, "At least I'm not running sprints every day like my teammates." They're running back and forth, up and down, and I'm just doing my little rehab.
How tough was that for you? People have a certain perception: They see Gronk and think of how tough you are.
There are definitely a lot of doubters out there. When you turn on the TV, everyone is doubting you, saying I'm never gonna come back to normal, I'll never be the same player I was in 2011 and 2012, whatever it was. It's just great that I'm turning all of those doubters into believers.
Is there one moment where you've felt that the most?
The Cincinnati game in Week 5. The first four games, I was playing a little bit, but that's when I clicked in. I was like, "Dang, I'm feeling good now." I told my coaches, "I'm ready to roll." I told my brother, I told my friends: "You're gonna see something out of me this game." After that Cincy game, I went into the mindset that I'm taking back over. Ever since then, everyone's been like, "Man, you turned it up." No one was believing in me. No one was expecting me to come back like that, but I knew I could do it. I knew I just needed the time and to keep on grinding out every single day.
After that 26-yard TD catch you had against the Colts on Nov. 16, I saw Bill Belichick going crazy on the sideline. What was that moment like for you?
That was great. When Coach Belichick comes up to you during a game and says something to you, that's great. He said "Nice play" and "No one can tackle you, man." It's just a great feeling to get respect from Coach, and you want to give it back by keeping on grinding for him. It puts a big smile on my face to see him that happy.
We don't see him that way often. Is he as serious as he usually seems?
Yeah, he's always that serious. No doubt. What you see is what you get from him. He doesn't BS around, tells you the straight truth. He's great to play for, he's a great coach and you learn a lot from him.
Talking about big moments for you on the field, walk me through that one-handed catch you had against the Broncos on Nov. 2.
When you see the ball in the air, you want to go make a play. I just jumped up in the air and put my hand out and caught it. I didn't feel like it was anything special at the moment. I was just reacting to the ball, and it felt like any other catch. Then I looked at the replay and I was like, "Dang! That's what happened?"
Have you seen Odell Beckham Jr.'s catch?
Oh, yes I have. I was sitting there and I was like, "Man, that's pass interference." Then all of a sudden he jumped up in the air and snagged it and I was like, "Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! That catch was sick!"
How do you rate that one against yours?
I would say that was the best catch I've ever seen, so I've gotta give it to him.
Who is your favorite person you've ever caught a pass from?
Tom Brady, no doubt about it. I still remember that I was shaking the first time he threw me a pass. I was like, "I've gotta catch this, I've gotta catch this." It was just a 10-yard pass, a little dumper in warm-ups. I almost dropped it because I was so nervous. It took a couple of practices to get the nerves out of the way.
What is the most meaningful thing Brady has ever said to you?
He always used to yell at me and get on my case. I was like, "Man, this dude, why is he coming at me like that?" He would always be making sure my routes were on point, yelling at me to be where I've gotta be. Then he came up to me one day and he was like, "Yo, Rob, you know I love you. I just see a lot of potential in you. I'm just trying to get on the same page. I want your max performance out there." And when he said that, it all clicked. I was like, "Oh, now I know why he's being like that." That actually made me more motivated. I've gotta get on the right step. If Tom Brady believes I can do it, then I believe. It was meaningful when he said, "I love you and I see so much potential in you."
Did you share that conversation with anyone close to you after that happened?
Nah, not really. I always told my friends that he was always mean to me.
How would you describe your relationship with Brady?
We have a great relationship. We goof around in the locker room. Out on the field, we have great chemistry and a great connection. We're good friends for sure, and we feel like we're way different now than where we were my rookie year.
What do you get Tom Brady for Christmas?
Catch his passes. I think that's all he wants. I never really got him anything. Maybe this year. We'll see what he gets me first.
He says you bring out that childlike quality. Have you rubbed off on him?
Sometimes he gets a little too serious in practice and I'll be joking around or whatever, just getting everyone to laugh and smile. Sometimes he sees me goofing around, so he jumps on board saying jokes and starts goofing around too. It's good to see him loosen up, 'cause you can't be fully serious 24/7.
You have said you would love to go back and be a kid again. What was it like growing up in the Gronkowski household?
It was a blast. I've got four brothers, so with them and all our friends we had these sports parties in the basement. We'd play basketball, mini-sticks, baseball in the backyard, football, whatever it was. We were busy 24/7.
What's the biggest thing you learned from all that?
Being physically and mentally tough. My older brothers would come at me, and my parents would just let it go. They wouldn't break it up because they would get hit if they tried to get in the middle of it. It got me physically tough -- my brothers beating up on me -- and mentally tough, being able to get my mind right to take them on.
You're here being photographed with kittens. What is the softer side of Gronk?
My softer side? I mean, I like to snuggle.
What's another thing people don't know about you?
I don't know, I'm addicted to working out. Before I go to bed, I've got to hit my situps and pushups. While I'm watching a TV show, I do pushups. I even watch SpongeBob still, so there we go.
So when you're watching SpongeBob, you drop down and do your pushups?
Yep. Drop down and do some pushups. Just chillin', yeah.