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NOW THE car was approaching the party, at a nice house in the leafy suburb of Hanover, 20 miles southeast of Boston, and Rob was feeling uncharacteristically anxious. As usual, he'd traveled light for the weekend wedding, bringing only a suit (now jammed into the bag), two pairs of boxers, dress shoes, two T-shirts, socks, shorts and a pair of jeans. ("It's all I need to get rollin'," he said.) He pulled out a blue Izod T-shirt and his "nice shorts"—wrinkled, frayed cargos with a stain on the butt. Rob appraised them, then tossed them back in the bag. "Nah, I'm just going to roll like this," he announced, meaning his old T-shirt and gym shorts. A minute later he changed his mind again and began hurriedly disrobing in the car.
Usually when he attends such events he has someone with him—an agent or a friend of the family. Today it was just the two of us, as this appearance had been arranged only three days earlier. "He's being offered stupid money," Gordy explained. "He can't turn it down." Unlike most athletes of his stature, Rob coordinates most of his own appearances—with plenty of advice from Gordy—much to the chagrin of the Patriots. The naked cover shoot for ESPN the Magazine's Body Issue, for example, surprised the team, as did most of Rob's postseason shenanigans. That led the organization, so tightly run in the Bill Belichick era, to announce an end to the Summer of Gronk. That was a week earlier.
But this was "stupid money," and the Gronkowskis are anything but stupid about money. Like his brothers, Rob says he has saved most of the money from his football contracts, investing it in tax-free municipal bonds at his father's decree. He subsists on freebies—he showed off the two iPhones he's received—and money from appearances and endorsements. Hence the birthday party, which Gronkowski was starting to feel hopeful about as he exited the car into a gloriously sunny afternoon. "Maybe," he said, "it will be a bunch of kids doing kegstands."
A moment later he was greeted by a woman from the speakers' agency that had arranged the appearance. She handed him a bunch of footballs to sign. As he began, a white Toyota SUV screeched to a halt 50 yards down the road and roared back in reverse, reappearing abreast of Rob. In the driver's seat sat a woman of 50 or so with short brown hair and sunglasses; an older white-haired lady sat next to her. Poking her head out the window, the driver jammed a finger at Gronk and declared, in that uniquely possessive manner of a Bostonian, "We love you!" He nodded. "Now you stay safe and don't get hurt," she said. Then she drove out of sight.
THIRTY MINUTES into the party Gronkowski started to feel uncomfortable. The arrival had gone just fine. He had walked out onto a back deck and surprised the birthday girl, who was dark-haired and pretty. Dads and uncles and friends cheered. One told the girl, "You've been Gronked!" There followed many photos, taken with a large plastic HAPPY BIRTHDAY banner in the background and barbecued chicken in the foreground. Gronkowski grinned but made little conversation. Mostly he laughed, which is what he tends to do when he's nervous and out of his element.
Finally Gronk took action. Striding down the steps toward the large back lawn, he bellowed, "Shotgun contest!"
The lady from the speakers' agency looked nervous. Sensing it, Gronkowski shouted, "No pictures!" Then, so as not to disappoint anyone: "You can take them after we chug." It is a testament to his affability and earnestness that he expected this to work.
Indeed, after spending the better part of three days with the Gronkowskis, it had become clear to me that none of this was an act. Rob is no Terrell Owens or Shaquille O'Neal, desperately courting the media to stay in the spotlight. There is no master plan, no Svengali, no viral marketing campaign. Rather, Rob is, as his mom says, "the same now at 23 as he was when he was 10. I mean, exactly the same." He wears the same clothes as in high school (in many instances literally), hangs out with his middle school buddies and does the same stupid stuff. Thus, when he parties and ends up on Deadspin, he is more disappointed than angry. According to Dan, "He says, 'Why do people have to sit there and take pictures of me? They're not partying at all? Why wouldn't you be dancing like I want to?'"
As a result, expectations of the Gronkowskis have grown. When Chris joined the Broncos, he was asked in one of his first interviews whether he was going to take his shirt off; this fall, Glenn showed up at Kansas State to find pictures of Rob's naked magazine shoot plastered to his locker. Naturally the brothers love it. They text each other after every new Gronk sighting and pull up Rob Gronkowski news alerts on their phones. "The stuff Rob says in the media, I think he's thinking of his brothers," Dan told me. "We all see it and text him and say, 'That was hilarious,' and he says, 'I know, that's why I said it!' Even if everyone else thinks it's stupid, if we thought it was hilarious, it's all O.K." On the other hand, as Dan says, "if we tell him it's stupid, he won't do it again."
Here at the birthday party everyone had been expecting Gronk to do something Gronkish, and finally he had. In the process, his nervousness had evaporated; these 21-year-olds spoke his language. Soon the shotgun competitors were arrayed: the birthday girl (freckled, excited, buzzed), three aviator-bedecked, flip-flop-wearing young men (skinny, scruffy, nervous as hell) and Gronkowski (tall, rocked, absolutely radiant). For the moment everything Gronkowski represents to football—the future of the Patriots; the most potent tight end in NFL history—was irrelevant. All that mattered was who could shotgun a beer the fastest. So while the 21-year-olds fiddled with their cans, trying to puncture the casing with car keys only to create embarrassing miniature geysers of froth, Gronk calmly pressed into the bottom of his can with an enormous thumb. In doing so he created a perfect rectangle from which to inhale the Bud. It was the move of a master. Then Gronk looked up, assessing the competition. "That's it?" he said. "Oh, I gotta win this one."