The College Recruitment of Rob Gronkowski

Tyler Donohue@@TDsTakeNational Recruiting AnalystSeptember 29, 2015

New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski celebrates his first touchdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first half of an NFL football game, Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)
Winslow Townson/Associated Press

Mike White vividly remembers the first time he realized that Rob Gronkowski would play professional football.

Despite covering him as a senior tight end, the veteran Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter didn't experience that light-bulb moment until he witnessed the eventual Super Bowl champion pick up a basketball during the winter of 2006. 

"When I saw Gronkowski on the court, that's when my jaw dropped," White said. "I'm watching the guy in warm-ups, and his athleticism was off the charts."

Already standing approximately 6'6" and 250 pounds, the Woodland Hills High School star delighted onlookers with an arsenal of awe-inspiring slams. White looked on as Gronkowski unleashed a 360-degree pregame dunk, sending an intimidating message to opposing players.

"It's a quarter into the game, and I turned to my wife and said, 'See that kid? He's going to be in the NFL,'" White said. "Did I know he was going to be this good? No. I don't think anybody did."

While Gronkowski's football abilities ultimately attracted attention across America, his athletic prowess transcended the game at an early age. He also anchored the lineup of his high school baseball squad, batting cleanup.

The 26-year-old NFL All-Pro affectionately known as "Gronk" wowed folks long before he landed on top of everyone's fantasy football rankings. 247Sports director of scouting Barton Simmons recalls the buzz that surrounded the Buffalo product who transferred to a Pittsburgh-area powerhouse for his final high school campaign.

"Gronkowski was absolutely one of those guys whom some people looked at and saw an offensive tackle because of his size. He probably could have been a first-round pick at offensive tackle if he wanted to do that, but he was just so uniquely talented," Simmons said.

"You knew he was going to be a force in some capacity," he added. "It was just a matter of whether he was going to be a force as a pass-catcher or more of a line-of-scrimmage presence."

Now known for his reliable hands and record-setting production as a receiver at the position, opportunities through the air were rare for Gronkowski as a senior at Woodland Hills. He caught just eight passes in 2006, though he still managed to score four touchdowns and earn a spot in the Post-Gazette's "Fabulous 22" for his overall impact on games. 

That season nearly never occurred for the three-sport standout. The Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League ruled Gronkowski ineligible shortly after his August transfer from Williamsville North High School in Williamsville, New York. 

The WPIAL initially declared his transfer to be motivated by athletic reasons. That decision was reversed less than a week later, clearing the way for Gronkowski to make an immediate impact at Woodland Hills.

His skills as a receiver were well-understood, despite offensive production that pales in comparison to the 324 receptions Gronkowski has racked up since New England drafted him 42nd overall in 2010.

Woodland Hills invested in a JUGS passing machine before Gronkowski's senior season, and the tight end quickly took ownership of it.

"Their football coach [George Novak] tells this story all the time. They had just bought it and went away to camp for a week. Before practice, Gronkowski would stand close to it and catch every pass," White said. "Then he'd get closer and tell them to turn it up as fast as it could go. He would just sit there and catch everything."

Tim Kish, an assistant college football coach since 1978, spearheaded Arizona's recruitment of Gronkowski. While he admits most players of that stature often end up playing on the offensive or defensive line, a Wildcats staff led by head coach Mike Stoops never doubted Gronkowski would make his biggest impact in the aerial attack.

"We anticipated he'd be successful. We just didn't know how good he could be," said Kish, who now coaches linebackers at Oklahoma. "He's a unique and rare athlete."

Beyond the physical tools, Kish admired Gronkowski's attitude. 

"He's got tremendous passion to play the game. He's fiery-competitive. Rob doesn't like to lose at anything, but at the same time, he's a happy-go-lucky guy after the game," he said.

This demeanor makes Gronkowski an endearing professional athlete, one who comes off at times as a big kid. Football fans have become accustomed to watching him dominate the red zone and the dance floor

He carried similar exuberance into the recruiting process.

"He was a guy who would enjoy the campus visits," Simmons said. "Pictures would emerge of him with coeds. He'd refer to himself as 'The Big, Bad Gronk' sometimes. The personality was always there, and that was clear from the beginning. In a lot of cases today, his persona would maybe raise some red flags, but he's managed it so well that if anything, it's a positive with him."

The younger brother of two FBS football players, Gronkowski followed their footsteps as another collegiate prospect in the family. 

His profile grew rapidly, due in large part to a dominant junior season at Williamsville North. Gronkowski earned second-team All-State honors in New York that year, wreaking havoc at tight end and defensive end. 

Considered a 4-star prospect by 247Sports, he was rated fourth nationally among tight ends and 84th overall in the 2007 class' composite rankings. Arizona was hardly alone in its pursuit of the premier talent. 

"He had 45 to 50 scholarship offers," Kish said. "We got our foot in the door with him, and he came out to campus. I think Rob looked around the university and saw it was a beautiful situation with great weather. He knew we were throwing the ball all over the place at the time and that he'd have an opportunity to compete to play right away."

Gronkowski verbally pledged to Arizona in January 2007, midway through a basketball season that saw him average a double-double per game. His decision didn't come with much fanfare or a memorable announcement ceremony but managed to send Kish into a personal celebration.

The Wildcats finished the season a few weeks prior, and the coach was enjoying an offseason trip with his family. He was chopping wood behind a cabin in the White Mountains of northern Arizona when the call came.

It was Gordon Gronkowski and his fourth-born son. Rob was ready to commit.

"Probably everybody in the White Mountains could hear me screaming after that conversation," Kish said. "It was a scream of excitement. We were so thrilled to get him on board. It was huge."

Gronkowski chose Arizona over dozens of options, including top contenders Clemson, Syracuse and Ohio State. He would play just two seasons for the Wildcats, catching 75 passes for 1,197 yards and 16 touchdowns.

Back surgery cost Gronkowski his entire junior campaign, though it didn't prevent him from declaring early for the NFL draft. He ultimately landed with the Patriots and quickly developed into a primary target for future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady. 

Now a Super Bowl champ, Gronkowski continues to build a legendary career.
Now a Super Bowl champ, Gronkowski continues to build a legendary career.Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

Gronkowski now seems well on his way to Canton. He holds the NFL tight end record for most consecutive seasons with at least 10 touchdown grabs and became the all-time single-season positional leader with 1,327 receiving yards in 2011.

"He's had a major impact on the position," top-ranked 2016 tight end recruit Isaac Nauta said. "A lot of college coaches bring him up during conversations because they know plenty of prospects nowadays want to be the next Gronk."

But is there a "next Gronk" in college football recruiting?

Kish isn't so sure.

"I don't know if we'll ever see another one just quite like him," he said. "An athlete who looks like that and moves like that in high school is incredibly rare. Those kinds of players often end up moving to a different position. A decade ago, and obviously still today, Rob proves how unique he really is at tight end."

Editor's note: Throughout the 2015 football season, Bleacher Report will continue a series on the college recruitment of today's biggest sports stars. For previous installments, see below:

Quotes obtained firsthand by Bleacher Report National Recruiting Analyst Tyler Donohue. Recruit ratings are courtesy of 247Sports' composite ratings. Follow Tyler via Twitter: @TDsTake. 

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