ROB GRONKOWSKI, holding an orange athletic bag in one hand and a beat-up iPhone in the other, strode through the fluorescent pallor of Boston's Logan Airport, down the stairs from Gate C41 and past the clunking baggage-claim belts, where tired families clustered. With each step he covered huge swaths of linoleum, his 6'6", 265-pound frame making him appear comically large next to his fellow passengers, a Yeti loosed amid the midday weekend masses.
Normally Gronkowski enjoyed interacting with Patriots fans, who have come to adore him, in part for his impact on the football field. In 2011, his second season in the league, he set an NFL record for tight ends with 17 receiving touchdowns, many of them while defenders clung to his back like remoras. But what really endeared him to every thick-neck in Greater Boston was his joyous personality. Gronkowski spiked each TD as if he'd just landed on the moon, attended every party to which he was invited, posed for photos on Twitter with a porn star and inadvertently coined catchphrases—most famously when an interviewer asked him a question in Spanish and he gamely offered, "Yo soy fiesta," which translates as, I am party. If there is such a thing as a patron saint of meatheads, it is Gronk.
On this day, though, Gronkowski was tired, so he kept his giant white headphones clamped on his ears as he made his way out the airport doors, unable to hear onlookers murmuring, "Gronk?!" Waiting for his car service, he signed an autograph for a middle-aged man who said, "Thanks for everything you did for the kids in Boston this year," though it was unclear what he meant by that. Gronk smiled and made small talk, but his heart wasn't in it.
It had been a long summer. Over the previous three months Gronkowski had signed a six-year, $54 million contract extension; appeared on the dating show The Choice; co-hosted Access Hollywood Live; wheelbarrow-raced with his brothers down the red carpet at the ESPYs; starred in the Twitter feed of a woman called Meredith Pineapples, who described their purported romantic exploits; and posed nude for the cover of a national magazine. Just the previous night he'd attended the Pittsburgh wedding of Kurt Angle, the professional wrestler. Now, only four days before the start of training camp, he was suffering from a condition that most people consider trivial. But when it afflicts Gronk, it can frustrate and befuddle him, dampening his otherwise boundless enthusiasm and causing brief bouts of soul-searching.
Rob Gronkowski had a hangover.
Normally he would attack the problem through exercise, ridding his body of noxious chemicals with a two-hour session in the weight room or an afternoon of wind sprints or by doing the Insanity workout, a brutal hourlong program of high knees, crunches and lateral slides. When possible, Gronkowski preferred to do the workout with his similarly affable and athletic brothers—Gordie, 29, a former first baseman in the Angels' farm system; Dan, 27, a tight end for the Browns; Chris, 25, a fullback for the Broncos; and Glenn, 19, a sophomore fullback at Kansas State—who occupy a four-way tie for the title of Rob's best friend. Since the Insanity workout requires only about 30 square feet of space, the brothers have done it in basements, hotel rooms and even the dining room of Rob's apartment, the furniture cleared back as 1,200-plus pounds of Gronkowskis leaped and grunted, floorboards creaking, sweat spackling the walls.
Rob had no such luxury this day. In an hour he was due at a woman's 21st birthday party, an appearance for which he was being paid five figures and was expected to provide the full Gronkowski experience. The next morning, Sunday, he could rest. For now, though, he had to rally for this, the final party of the Summer of Gronk.
HE IS many things to many people. Depending on your perspective Rob Gronkowski is: destined to be the best tight end ever; an overrated product of the Patriots system; a breath of fresh air; just another attention-seeking athlete. He is idiot, jester, hero, foil, buffoon and prodigy, the embodiment of a pathetic bro-centric fraternity culture, a regrettable symbol of the TMZ age. He is Andy Kaufman in the body of Dolph Lundgren. He is your first-round fantasy draft pick (unless you go for the Saints' Jimmy Graham). He is a thousand ridiculous nicknames on the lips of a thousand amateur sportscasters. He is a feminist's worst nightmare, your 15-year-old nephew's role model. He is only 23 years old.
Most of all, though, he is a Gronkowski. So to understand Rob or forecast his future—as a football player, as a person, as part of the sports celebrity culture—you must start with his family.
Two days before Rob landed at Logan, I met his father, Gordy, near his house in suburban Buffalo. He wore a tight white short-sleeved button-down shirt. He motioned me inside his black Ford F-150, the one with the Harley-Davidson detailing. Save for his thinning gray hair and creased forehead, Gordy could pass for the oldest Gronkowski brother. At 53, he lifts weights daily and has 18½-inch biceps. The WiFi network at his house is labeled BigG; his ringtone is the guitar riff from George Thorogood's Bad to the Bone.