Gordy grew up in West Seneca, N.Y., raised by a pure-hearted mother and a hard-drinking father —"a waste of a person, really," he says—whose own father, Ignatius Gronkowski, was a U.S. cyclist at the 1924 Olympics. As a kid, Gordy was a self-described "punk," getting in fights, pulling fire alarms and drinking in middle school until he finally applied himself in football and baseball. As an unheralded 6'3", 220-pound senior lineman, he bought a $240 Greyhound ticket that provided two weeks of unlimited travel. Carrying game film he stole from West Seneca's football office, Gordy, then 17, spent his spring break riding I-80 cross-country and then touring California colleges, shoving his game tape onto the desk of one coach after another. Upon returning home he caught the eye of Jerry Angelo, then the defensive-line coach at Syracuse, and got a scholarship offer. After excelling in three injury-plagued seasons, he signed an $18,000 contract with the New Jersey Generals of the USFL in 1983.
That was as far as Gordy advanced; he was cut at the start of Generals camp. He was already married, with a child, Gordie, on the way. For the next decade he worked long hours traveling the Northeast as a salesman, first for Pennzoil and later for a fitness supply company he owned. His wife, Diane, spent her days tending to their growing brood. In 1985, Dan was born, followed the next year by Chris and, in 1989, Rob, the only one of the boys who was planned, according to Gordy. By the time Glenn came along, in 1993, Gordy and Diane were overwhelmed.
Gordy prepared his sons for athletic futures from a young age, chucking them tennis ball grounders, hitting towering backyard pop-ups and, as they got older, firing balls at them from a JUGS machine—first Nerf, then tennis and then, in high school, baseballs. When the boys got too hyper, he introduced a game called Zoom-Zoom. Clearing the furniture from the living room, he gave each boy a couch pillow and had them all run full speed and, as Gordy puts it, "just knock the s--- out of each other."
It was Diane who bore the larger burden, though. Since Gordy worked until eight or nine most nights, she woke at 4 a.m. and ferried the boys from one practice to another: hockey to baseball to basketball to football. She spent $500 to $600 a week on food, buying half a cow at a time and loading it into two freezers in the garage. She bought 40-pound boxes of uncooked chicken and untold gallons of milk. She cooked every meal—the family rarely ate out, and fast food was largely prohibited. Rob says his favorite dish is still Diane's chicken soufflé.
Upon reaching seventh grade, each boy was allowed to play football, and in eighth grade to begin lifting. Gordy started his sons on the bench press in the family's basement weight room, using a broomstick for a bar, careful not to overload their maturing growth plates. Gains were incremental, 2½ pounds at a time, and form was crucial: three sets of 15 clean reps or you couldn't move up. Gordy kept track of everything in a tattered green notebook: body weight, reps, pounds pressed. To this day he believes his program was the critical step in his sons' development. "You might have talent in eighth or ninth grade, but if you don't get in that basement, you're not going to stay ahead of that game," he told me. "That's where I crushed everybody, because I started my kids in eighth grade. They crushed everybody because nobody could stay with them."
In the family's first house, in the Buffalo suburb of Amherst, the boys made do with a multistack machine, a pull-up bar and a bench press. Between 2000 and '02, Gordy built a new house just up the road, one he proudly showed off the morning after our dinner, noting how the hallways are wider than normal and the ceilings higher, "so we're not always bumping into each other." The property, which the boys call the Gronk Park, includes a fenced-in tennis and basketball court, a pool, a hot tub, a backstop, a tackling sled and a sprawling lawn 120 yards long.
The boys still gather at the Gronk Park each summer. When Rob was home in July, he and three of his brothers engaged in Activity Day, which has one rule: You must keep doing something. So hoops leads to lifting, which leads to 100-yard sprints, which leads back to hoops, which leads to Wiffle golf and finally to pool basketball. Intermittently, the boys slam protein shakes; at the end they drink voluminous quantities of light beer.
When together, the Gronkowski brothers revert to their long-standing roles. Dan, broad-shouldered and thoughtful, is invariably described as the "hardworking" brother. He spent long hours in study hall and now spends long hours studying the playbook. An Academic All-America at Maryland, he was nominated for a Rhodes scholarship. When he signed with the Patriots last year, he was assigned a locker next to Wes Welker and near Rob. As Dan recalls, after the first week Welker said, "I thought I was going to have two idiots sitting next to me in the locker room, but Dan's a little more intelligent than Rob."
Chris, the Broncos fullback, is the "smart" brother. More wary and introspective than the others, he had the highest test scores and got into Penn's Wharton School but chose a football scholarship at Maryland, then transferred to Arizona as a sophomore. He is also grudgingly accorded the title of "strongest" brother, able to bench 400 pounds—"though only because of his short arms," says Rob. Chris is also the conscience of the boys; it is he who asked me to mention their charity, the Gronk Nation Youth Foundation.
The oldest brother, Gordie, is by all accounts the smoothest. He is the one who keeps the group together, sending a pregame text message to his siblings every week with an inspirational thought. He also makes friends wherever he goes; it was Gordie who was invited to Kurt Angle's wedding and took Rob as his date.