A Star Is Born
Gronked: To throw something down to the ground with great force, like football player Rob Gronkowski does after each touchdown. After I finished my exam, I Gronked my pencil in a show of exuberance.
In September 2009, twenty-year-old Rob Gronkowski lay in bed, eyes directed at the sterile hospital ceiling. Just out of surgery, he felt like an anchor was strapped to his back. Movements were limited and tentative. A sudden shift drew sharp daggers raking against his spine. Pain had never been something he feared. Growing up in a house with four brothers, physical contact was a daily routine. As the starting tight end at the University of Arizona, he had both received and delivered major hits over the years. But this moment, coming out of surgery, was one of the most uncertain in his life.
There were legitimate questions about whether he would ever play football again. Rob never let those fears take root. Doctors had been optimistic, but there were no guarantees. And if not football, then what would he do?
The sport had defined Rob’s life. His father had been a college football player who briefly played in the United States Football League (USFL) in the early 1980s. His other brother Dan, a fellow tight end, had been drafted by the Detroit Lions, while another brother, Chris, transferred from the University of Maryland after two years to play fullback alongside Rob at Arizona. The sport ran through the family’s veins.
Even at a young age, Rob displayed freakish size and physical talent. He ended his senior year of high school as a six feet six SuperPrep All-American, developing blocking skills to complement eight receptions for 152 yards and four touchdowns. College-scholarship offers flooded his mailbox. In two years at Arizona, he set the school’s single-game, single-season, and career records as a tight end for receptions, yards, and touchdowns.
His personality was goofy, fun-loving. It was rare to see the big boy angry or depressed. He went through each day with a smile on his face, eager to be on the field where he could line up and hit someone. There was one dream, one goal, and he had been groomed for it since he was just a little kid. Rob planned to star in the NFL.
It couldn’t possibly be over, could it?
“Robbie hurt his back in the weight room doing a dead lift,” his father Gordy explained. “It was the off-season after his sophomore year in college. He knew he was hurt, but thought it was just a sore back. He kept working out and running routes but was getting slower.”
Back issues were not without precedent in the Gronkowski family. Rob’s oldest brother, Gordie, an All-American baseball player, had suffered a herniated disk a few years earlier when in college. Once a promising major-league prospect, his injuries caused many teams to reconsider selecting him in the draft. The second brother, Dan, experienced occasional back spasms.
“I was definitely scared,” Rob recalled. “Pain started in April and kept getting worse and worse. I didn’t know what was going on, but I kept grinding harder because the harder you went, you didn’t feel the pain for that hour. Eventually, one day, it cut off my whole nervous system going into my legs. I couldn’t jump more than three inches. I kept going, but it was half-speed. I got it checked out and doctors discovered bulging and herniated disks.”
Having watched one son’s career veer off course because of this, Gordy wanted to be sure his other boys were protected. He had planned ahead for such a contingency.
“I took out a four-million-dollar insurance policy on Rob,” Gordy said. “The insurance company believed Rob had value because he was projected to be a first- or second-round NFL draft pick. I tried to get a policy for Chris, but I couldn’t. The company didn’t believe he had value.”
Rob’s injury occurred in the L5 vertebra, located in the lower back between the hips. In addition, an MRI revealed a closing of the spinal chamber. When Rob did not work out, the affected area settled and did not bother him. But how could a football player have a career in which he didn’t work out?
“Some doctors told us he shouldn’t play,” Gordy said. “Others said if the swelling goes down, he should be OK. And Rob at first tried to bluff and say he was fine before the surgery. But it reached a point where I could tell he was hurting, so I shut him down. He was done playing college football until this got fixed. I wasn’t making many friends in Arizona, but this is my kid, you know?”
No one was quite sure how to proceed, because when Rob relaxed and did not work out, the pain lessened. The injury was not debilitating. If Rob stopped training and playing football, he could live a comfortable life. But the professional opinion was that eventually, as he aged, Rob would need surgery to repair the spine.
Gordy searched for the best back specialist around. One name kept recurring: Robert Watkins, a doctor from California who’d performed surgery on athletes with injuries similar to Rob’s. The doctor laid out options.
“We went around and around about Rob’s surgery,” Gordy said. “He had choices. One was to not have surgery and never play football again but get four million dollars. The other was don’t collect the money but have surgery and hope that everything comes out right. It wasn’t an easy choice. It’s a serious operation. One slip down there and you’re dealing with the vertebrae and spinal cord.”
The insurance policy was both a blessing and a curse. If Rob elected to walk away from football, he would be financially set for life at only twenty years old. Even though he had played only two years of college football and sat out his junior year because of the injury, Rob was talented enough that the NFL was still interested. Could he forgo his junior year of college and make a leap to the pros despite surgery?
“Four million dollars is a lot of money,” Gordy mused. “With investments, I knew he could get five percent back in tax-free bonds. If he took the insurance policy, he could collect two hundred thousand tax-free every year. But if you have the operation it’s like rolling the dice.”
Rob ultimately made the decision: he didn’t want to become wealthy from an insurance policy. He preferred to earn it. Rob agreed to back surgery, knowing it was a perilous path: his body needed to remain straight and avoid sideways moves for six weeks afterward. Recovery would be difficult, with no guarantees.
“The money was not a consideration at all,” Rob said. “We were confident because of the doctor and his background. We knew he was the best. I never looked at the money option one bit. I just wanted to keep playing football, and that’s what I did.”
Gordy honored his son’s wishes, admiring his attitude. He and his former wife had raised their boys to work hard. None expected to be handed rewards without earning them.
“I had never had surgery, never been knocked out on anesthesia before, so it was scary,” Rob admitted. “For the first three days, my whole back was stiff. I wondered if I would heal, but you feel better every week. I just chilled for a month and a half, sitting on the couch. That’s basically all you can do.”
Bill Gorman is an assistant basketball coach at Williamsville North High School, where Rob played varsity basketball for three seasons. Like all of Rob’s coaches, Gorman recognized that he was dealing with a special athlete. But more than just winning games, he was concerned about educating Rob for a life in professional sports.
“We talked about the concept that as an athlete, any success you have can be taken from you in a second because of injury,” Gorman recalled. “When he told me he might not play anymore because of his back, I felt like crying. When you’re in the spotlight, things are going great, and things were going great for him. I told him that now he was going to find out who his true friends were.”
“He was nervous, there’s no doubt,” Gordy said. “But we never had a conversation about what he should do if he couldn’t play football. That’s not the way we think.”
The insurance policy was written in such a way that Rob could proceed with surgery and play for three games to test the recovery. If the injury was not healed, he could step away from the sport and still collect the money, although he could never play again. The surgery, however, was a calculated gamble.
“This is how I looked at it at the time,” Gordy recalled. “If he went back to college and the operation didn’t work, he had to leave the sport before the third game. If it wasn’t right in the second game, and he couldn’t play, we could still get money. I believed if he made it to the NFL and got past the third game, even into the fifth or sixth before something went wrong, he’d still get a year’s pay. It wouldn’t have been four million, but it would have given him something.”
As any football fan knows, the story turned out well. Not only did Rob get through the surgery, he was drafted by the New England Patriots in 2010 and made an immediate impact as a rookie, catching ten touchdown passes. The following season, as a twenty-two-year-old, he shattered tight end records, recording ninety receptions, 1,327 yards, and seventeen touchdowns.
Along the way, Rob became a bona fide superstar. His signature ball spike after a touchdown became known as “Gronking,” a term that found its way into the Urban Dictionary. He sat for ESPN interviews. He created controversy by appearing shirtless in a photograph beside a porn star who was wearing his jersey, both of them smiling coyly. Rap singers referenced him in their lyrics. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to be near Rob Gronkowski.
To look at Rob during that season, it was hard to imagine back pain had nearly brought him to a halt two years earlier. At 265 pounds, standing at six feet six inches, Rob has a square-shaped head topped by short brown hair, his features chiseled. He resembles Ivan Drago, the Russian heavyweight from Rocky IV, played by a young Dolph Lundgren. His neck is muscular, shoulders wide, biceps bulging. Simply put, Rob was bigger and stronger than most everyone else.
“Rob became an overnight rock star,” his father said, reflecting on the 2011 season. “I looked at the circus around him, and many times I thought, I can’t believe I raised this kid.”
Those who have known him for years are amused but not surprised by Rob’s breakout season. His personality is lighthearted and silly, but it masks a fiercely competitive fire that was nurtured by growing up with four brothers. His ascent into the NFL record books, many believe, is simply the next step in a natural progression.
“Rob just has this fun streak about him,” observed Mike Mammoliti, Rob’s high school football coach during his sophomore and junior years. “He was a big, happy-go-lucky kind of kid who just kept getting bigger.”
Mammoliti recalled one snapshot that embodied Rob’s personality. It was opening night at Williamsville North High School’s new athletic field.
“Rob was playing defensive end on the far side,” Mammoliti said. “The other team’s quarterback pitched the ball, and they ran a toss toward our bench. From the sideline, I saw Rob coming toward me, eyes as big as proverbial coke bottles, and he was smiling. He hit the runner and blew this kid up. He was laughing the whole time. He drove this kid two or three yards from the sideline all the way into our bench and then got up laughing. Robbie hit him while he was laughing and walked back to the huddle, laughing. I remember thinking, this kid just loves to play.”
Despite his superstar status, Rob isn’t the first member of his family to experience athletic success. It’s doubtful he’ll be the last. With a tight-knit clan of one tough dad and five tough boys, growing up Gronk has always meant being pushed and pushing back, fighting and scrapping, showing off to gain bragging rights without letting their egos become inflated.
Considering all they have experienced, the results are impressive.
The story goes back to the 1970s, long before Gordy, the patriarch, had earned the nickname Papa Gronk.