FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The sign outside the restaurant less than two kilometres up the road from where Rob Gronkowski scores touchdowns has a flashing suggestion for motorists: “HONK FOR GRONK!”
Plenty of car horns will be blaring if the fun-loving marquee tight end returns next Monday as a Super Bowl champion.
If his season so far is any indication, Gronkowski will have a major role when the New England Patriots face the New York Giants next Sunday in the NFL championship game.
One sign of his importance? Much of the Super Bowl talk to date has focused on Gronkowski’s balky left ankle.
“He’s had a lot of production,” coach Bill Belichick said. “He’s had a lot of touchdowns.
“He’s had a lot of good blocks. I don’t know what a ‘game changer’ is, but he’s definitely made some plays.”
A possible game changer is a tight end who is so good after the catch that he has 21 receptions of more than 20 yards among his total of 90. Or a player who scored three touchdowns in a seven-point win over Indianapolis. Or a 265-pound steamroller who mows down defenders on the way to the end zone. Or even a battering blocker who springs teammates for big gains.
Gronkowski has done all that, which makes him a potential game-breaker.
“No question,” receiver Matthew Slater said. “He’s kind of a once-in-a-lifetime talent with the skill set that he has. So we love getting him the ball in his hands, and he loves having the ball in his hands, and he does special things when he has the ball in his hands.”
Hands like a vise.
On the first of his three touchdowns in a 45-10 divisional playoff win over the Denver Broncos, Gronkowski dove in the left side of the end zone and got his right hand on Tom Brady’s 10-yard pass. The ball popped up and, acrobatically, he grabbed it with both hands and clutched it as he fell.
“That catch,” Brady said, “was a phenomenal catch, but he’s been making those all year.
“So, really, it doesn’t surprise us as much because he’s able to make those type of plays in practice and training camp, so you get used to it after a while.”
After the game, Gronkowski was asked if he enjoys playing against teams with talkative defenders like Baltimore, the next opponent.
“I like playing against anyone,” he said.
Gronkowski’s teammates are confident he’ll play in the Super Bowl after suffering what his father said was a high left ankle sprain in the third quarter of a 23-20 win over the Ravens in the AFC championship game.
He skipped practice Thursday and Friday, but Slater said: “There’s not too many guys tougher than him out there. So I would imagine he’s going to do everything he can to be out there.”
The 2010 second-round draft pick from Arizona set an NFL single-season record for tight ends with 17 touchdown catches this season. His 90 receptions were fifth in the NFL and his 1,327 yards receiving were sixth.
New York’s cornerbacks are all substantially shorter than the six-foot-six Gronkowski, and the Patriots have another dangerous tight end in Aaron Hernandez.
So what’s the plan for stopping Gronkowski?
“Get a ladder, probably,” Giants coach Tom Coughlin joked. “This is a very gifted tight end and there’s two of them, as you know.
“He’s had an outstanding career and rewritten some of the record books along the way and has done a very good job of making the big-play catch as well. He’s become someone that Brady looks to go to in certain areas of the field as well, certainly in the red zone.”
On the field, Gronkowski is all business, except when he spikes the ball after scoring. He understands the offence, runs precise routes and makes complex adjustments in a split-second.
Off the field, he’s a happy-go-lucky 22-year-old whom punter Zoltan Mesko calls “hilarious” and linebacker Rob Ninkovich describes as “a free spirit” who gets along with everyone.
“I guess he says it best,” Ninkovich said. “I think he refers to himself as a beast all the time. ‘I’m a beast.’
“So I think that when he gets on the field he obviously puts himself in a different mindset and does his beasting the best on the field. Everybody says that they’re different on the field and you can see that with a lot of guys.”
Sometimes, Gronkowski’s care-free off-field persona can lead to trouble.
During the Patriots’ bye week after their sixth game, adult film performer BiBi Jones posted two pictures of her with Gronkowski on her Twitter account. She was wearing his Patriots jersey in both. In one, he was shirtless.
He met with owner Robert Kraft and apologized publicly, saying being in the pros is a learning process and “I didn’t intend anything to hurt the reputation of anyone on the New England Patriots.”
Since then, he’s stuck with the team-first approach that Belichick emphasizes, often answering questions about his success by crediting teammates.
“It’s unbelievable,” Gronkowski said after the win over the Ravens put the Patriots in their fifth Super Bowl in 11 years. “It’s my second year in the league, playing with a great team, and you have to enjoy the moment.
“It doesn’t even feel right, especially playing with the veterans here. I watched them go to the Super Bowl as I was growing up and now I’m part of it? It is an unreal moment and you can’t take it for granted.”
He and his fans are enjoying the journey so much that he’s become a folk hero, a cultural icon for football-mad Patriots rooters and a part of their lexicon — gronking means spiking.
There’s been “A Very Gronkowski Christmas Raffle” in which the winner received two tickets to the Christmas Eve game with Miami and met Gronkowski afterward. Then the Patriots asked fans to “Give Us Your Best Gronk,” a fun-filled spiking event just outside Gillette Stadium with the winner getting two tickets to the AFC championship game.
In the locker room after beating Baltimore, Gronkowski was asked by a reporter from ESPN Deportes if he would celebrate the victory.
“Si,” he said, “Yo soy fiesta.”
Gronkowski had tried to answer in his non-native language and his comment translated to “I am party.”
No problem. For just US$26.99 you can order a T-shirt with the words “Yo Soy Fiesta!” from his website with the ‘o’ in ‘Yo’ a caricature of Gronkowski’s face topped by a sombrero.
And while you’re there, you can click on “The Fabulous Life of Rob Gronkowski.”
Recently, a sporting goods company posted a video showing an employee running from its store clutching T-shirts and running to a residence billed as Gronkowski’s home. When he goes inside, Gronkowski talks with him then spikes the remote control he was holding. In the closing seconds, he says, “Get the Gronk shirt and start gronking.”
Then he spikes one of the shirts — hard.
“He’s a great teammate,” Slater said. “He’s a light-hearted kid and he loves the game of football. He’s just a joy to play with.”
But when it’s time to play, Gronkowski doesn’t fool around.
“He turns that switch on,” Slater said. “You guys see what he does out there. So you can’t argue with what you see.”