Gronkowski's specialty is the improbable play. Of the many he made during the 2011 season, one is particularly representative. It was Week 14, and the Patriots were leading the Redskins 7--3 in the first quarter. Tom Brady dropped back from his own 40 and whipped a 10-yard pass to Gronkowski, who dove to snag it and, realizing he had not been touched by Redskins defensive back DeJon Gomes, rolled over, leaped to his feet and burst upfield toward the sideline. Moments later, Gomes caught him from behind, locking his arms around Gronkowski's waist and digging his heels into the turf as if playing tug-of-war. Meanwhile, Redskins safety Reed Doughty grabbed Gronkowski from the front and wrestled him out-of-bounds. Or so it appeared to everyone, including Washington cornerback DeAngelo Hall, who arrived on the scene, stopped and began walking away from the play. Only, somehow Gronkowski managed to 1) not step out of bounds, balancing both his weight and that of his tacklers on one of his size-16 cleats; 2) drop Gomes with a single volcanic knee thrust; and 3) shed Doughty with a hip swivel. Thus, when Hall turned his head a moment later, he saw Gronkowski galloping down the sideline toward the distant end zone. Cue Redskins defensive back Josh Wilson, who sprinted across the field to cut off Gronkowski and, wisely deciding against attempting a straight tackle, kamikazied into the big man's churning legs. The tactic worked, and an off-balance Gronkowski toppled forward. But instead of thudding to the turf, he began a wild extended stagger, gaining another 13 yards before finally going down at the 11-yard line. Talking to reporters after the game, a stunned Wilson compared Gronkowski to a "human gargoyle."
Historically, Gronkowski is the latest in a line of NFL robo--tight ends that stretches back to Mark Bavaro and includes Tony Gonzalez and Jeremy Shockey (to whom Gronkowski wrote a fan letter in the eighth grade). Gronkowski is on track to best all of them. Already, his 1,327 yards and 90 catches last season rank as the first and 13th best ever for an NFL tight end.
Gronkowski affects a breezy attitude toward his success—"I couldn't believe it either," he told me of the Redskins play—and it can give the impression that he is a football savant. As his brother Dan, the Browns tight end, says, "Some of it isn't teachable. They say, 'Rob, go run this route,' and he just runs it. Me, I have to take three steps this way and three steps that way and break it off. He just runs out there and goes, 'Throw me the ball,' and it works. It's unbelievable."
Rob does little to dispel this idea. He claims he does not feel fear. "No, not at all," he told me. What about getting crushed over the middle? "It's all good," he said. "Sometimes it's cool, you want to get that feeling, to feel what it's like to get hit the hardest, when you're not looking, just so you're ready."
To hear his family tell it, Rob was born without the capacity to feel fear or pain. The first time he went skiing, at Holiday Valley in Ellicottville, N.Y., he sneaked to the top of the first run and went straight down as fast as he could. At home he endured withering charley horses from his brothers almost daily. Usually they were the result of botched sneak attacks; Dan would be standing in the living room, and—bam!—the smaller, younger Rob would hit him at full speed from behind. Then: retribution. Today, Rob's brothers believe his success at breaking tackles is a result of the ritual pummelings they gave him. "And all he'd do," says Chris, "is laugh."
Occasionally things came to a head. On a trip to Myrtle Beach, S.C., in the family's Ford conversion van, Rob antagonized his parents so much by fighting with his brothers and generally raising hell that Gordy pulled over at a rest stop and threw the boy out of the car, then drove away. At first Rob stood there smugly, knowing his dad would never abandon him. It wasn't until Gordy approached the highway on-ramp that Rob gave chase.
Another time, when Rob was 10 or so and had exhausted all of Gordy's goodwill, Gordy grabbed him and announced they were headed to Father Baker's, a mythical home for wayward boys. Rob didn't buy it. As the car pulled out of the driveway, he waved to his friends, telling them he'd be back and not to worry. Then Gordy pulled up in front of an abandoned building on Sheridan Drive and told Rob to grab his bag and go knock on the door. Finally, Rob cracked. He began crying. "No, this is it," Gordy said. "Your mother can't put up with you anymore. I talked to you a million times. This is it until they call and tell us you can behave."
Rob cried harder but refused to budge. Gordy grabbed his son's legs and yanked while Rob hung on to the steering wheel. Finally Gordy relented. "Are you gonna finally behave?" he demanded. "I'm sick of this s---, of your mother calling me all the time."
"I promise, I promise," Rob said, crying.
Says Gordy, "We came home, and he probably behaved for another day. Huh-huh-huh!"