It's Time for the NFL to Remember What It Means to Get Gronked

Tyler Dunne @TyDunne NFL Features WriterAugust 2, 2017

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 3: Rob Gronkowski #87 runs away after stealing the jersey of Tom Brady #12 during a pre-game ceremony before the Boston Red Sox home opener against the Pittsburgh Pirates on April 3, 2017 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)
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His football career should be in peril. The indomitable force should be, once and for all, finished. 

On Nov. 13, 2016, Rob Gronkowski absorbed an Earl Thomas lampoon of a hit to the chest and suffered a pulmonary contusion. On Nov. 27, against the Jets, he injured his back (yet again) and went under the knife for his ninth reported surgery.

The Patriots won the Super Bowl anyway.

So this would be a fitting end, a perfect retirement. He pounded beers, then spiked those beers as "Jump Around" and "All I Do Is Win" blared through the victory parade in downtown Boston. Gronk seriously one-handed one beer from a fan in the crowd before chugging and spiking.

It'd be so easy for him to fade away into the sunset with this being his lasting, unforgettable image.

Or the indomitable force can do what he's always done. He can keep moving.

And that's the outcome we can all expect this 2017 season. A comeback. A bruising, vindictive comeback. This 6'6", 265-pound natural disaster never looks back. No, Gronk leaves a trail of destruction in his tracks.

People look back on him. He doesn't look back on them.

He ends a man's football career without even knowing. He parties with Waka Flocka Flame, averaging roughly one WWE move per drink. He wears 220-pound defensive backs around his limbs like fashion statements.

And the Patriots tight end just…keeps…moving.

This is the greatest tight end ever in his prime. Through 98 games (including the playoffs), Gronk has 457 receptions for 6,849 yards and 77 touchdowns. How he's done it is most impressive. He's dynamite in the passing game, yet devastating in the running game. He's brilliant. He sees what Tom Brady sees, yet swivels his hips, leaves craters of divots with each spike and cannot help but to inform the world what that 69th career regular-season touchdown meant to him, ahem, if you know what I mean.

The man is a football mutation.

BOSTON, MA - FEBRUARY 07: Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots drinks beer during the Super Bowl victory parade on February 7, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Patriots defeated the Atlanta Falcons 34-28 in overtime in Super Bowl 51. (Photo by Bil
Billie Weiss/Getty Images

If you want to know what lies ahead, simply sift through that wreckage he has left behind. Alfonso Jackson. Waka Flocka Flame. His two high school coaches. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Sergio Brown. Brandon Tatum. Talk to those who have been Gronked and lived to talk about it. They've been concussed. They've gotten drunk. They've been embarrassed. They all know that Gronkowski will be obliterating defenses again in no time.

Is he the best tight end ever? Take it away, Waka Flocka.

"He's the f--king truth," the rapper says. "You can't lie right now. No tight end is better than Rob Gronkowski."


Man amongst boys

Before entertaining 70,000 in a packed stadium, Gronkowski played in front of a couple hundred in a high school gymnasium.

And one night in that gym, he was booed.

Williamsville North was playing at Williamsville East in Buffalo, New York. Gronkowski, playing for Will North, was out there during warm-ups and dunked with such force that he shattered the backboard. Shards of glass scattered everywhere. The game was canceled, and East sent North the bill.

It wasn't the first backboard Gronk broke, either.

He was forever the adult dropped into a kid's game. His victims are nameless and numerous. Coaches can't remember who exactly was rag-dolled, only that so many have been rag-dolled. Once Gronk was finished mashing his brothers at home—from epic mini sticks battles to chucking a fork at his little brother Glenn that got lodged in Glenn's elbow—Gronk took it out on opponents at Will North, then at Woodland Hills (Pennsylvania) as a senior.

Take the poor chap from Clarence (N.Y.) High. The kid ran a wide sweep toward the Will North sideline, far away from Gronk because all teams designed plays away from Gronk, yet there he was. Gronk closed in primitive lion-chases-gazelle inevitability. His eyes "big as Coke bottles," Will North's Mike Mammoliti recalls, Gronk caught the kid near the sideline and threw him airborne like a log onto a bonfire.

The entire time, Gronk was laughing.

On offense, catching the ball was fun, but blocking fools was way more satisfying. Once, at Woodland Hills, Gronkowski drove a defensive end 20 yards downfield and sprawled on top of him for effect. "The kid couldn't get up," recently retired Woodland Hills coach George Novak says. Moments later, an official asked Novak for No. 48 to "take it easy" on these perfectly legal plays. He didn't. That same game, Gronk blocked a punt and ran it in for a touchdown.

Against Fox Chapel High School, there were four more victims. One by one, they hopped onto Gronk's back as he carried them into the end zone. Another game, Gronk blasted a running back into the fence on the sideline.

Basketball? His legend grew with five dunks in a game. On two of them, multiple players hung from his shoulders.

"He just took them up," Novak says, "and dunked it."

Baseball? Gronk belted dingers over a road called Greensburg Pike behind right field regularly. Few others ever did.

Back then, he wasn't Gronk. He was "Drago," as in Ivan Drago from Rocky IV. And during preseason football camp, Drago would crank that JUGS machine to 75 mph, snaring passes 10 yards away—"Catching them," Novak says, "like he's swatting flies."

He was physically superior, but also mentally superior. This 17-year-old Gronked with his mind, too.

Mammoliti still has a picture of himself talking to Gronkowski one day at a Will North football practice. In that moment, Gronk explained to him how he should "shake the post" into a corner route to leave his man in the dust. Thus, his "shake" route was born. You've seen it many times.

Oh, Mammoliti knows Gronk is painted as a Neanderthal. "Knucklehead" is the term he uses.

But this is also someone who returned home to Buffalo from college once and drew up Arizona's entire offense on Mammoliti's whiteboard. This backboard-shattering, running back-lassoing knucklehead detailed every single offensive player's job every single play.

"It was like talking to another coach," Mammoliti says.

A "coach" who can inadvertently end another player's career.


The Great Wall of Gronk

The YouTube video is spliced like any old highlight reel for any old player. It's four minutes, nine seconds long, set to the thumping beat of "Jungle" by X Ambassadors.

Nothing seems strange about it. Titled "Rob Gronkowski Arizona Highlights," the video has amassed more than 70,000 views and features 31 plays in all.

On Play No. 1, here's what you see…

A No. 18 in white drills No. 48 in dark blue with a hard right shoulder the moment No. 48 catches the ball. No. 48 somehow hangs on to the ball, spins to gain his balance, stumbles, steadies, scores a touchdown and celebrates. The lyrics—"Well it's too long living in the same old lives…"—bellow and the clip moves along to the next play.

Here's what you don't see…

That No. 18 for Washington State, a man named Alfonso Jackson, tries to stand up after the collision, takes a couple of steps, blacks out and leaves on a stretcher. That No. 18, Jackson, doesn't wake up from his concussion until he's in the hospital.

"When I was fully conscious with my thoughts," Jackson says, "I was in the emergency room."

This single hit on Sept. 29, 2007, doomed Jackson's career.

Gronk was the unprotected target. He should have been the one knocked out. This JUCO transfer, Jackson, had been headhunting all season. The previous week, against No. 1 USC, Jackson tattooed a tight end with a vicious forearm shiver along the sideline with so much force that a USC coach told him afterward he was NFL-bound.

"I prided myself," Jackson says, "on throwing my body around."

So bring on this Gronkowski character. He didn't seem like anything special.

In his scouting report, all Jackson had written down on him was: "Blocker." He was more concerned about Arizona's tall wide receivers and freshman running back Nic Grigsby. He knew Gronkowski was physical, but he had no clue how physical he was. This play, Washington State was aligned in a Cover 2 look, which provided Jackson a 15-yard beeline of a kill shot at the tight end. And in that 1/128th of a second between catching the ball and Jackson's cannon blast, Gronkowski braced for impact.

That's all. He tensed up.

Jackson essentially ran full speed into a concrete wall.

His ears rang and everything went black. Jackson took one week off, played against Oregon and the entire game was a fog. His body wouldn't respond to his mind.

"Everything's in a funk," he says. "A cloud. A haze. When I was on the field, I can still remember there was a triple option being ran, and my muscles didn't fire. My reaction was slow. The moment I did try to get Jonathan Stewart, he ran right past me."

Jackson told the trainers to take him out.

He missed two more games, played the final three and, even then, his vision on and off the field was cloudy. Everything was "moving." Everything was "juggling." That ensuing offseason, Jackson endured a string of expensive tests to play his senior season. Despite the missed time, he still had 65 tackles the previous year—he was convinced he could play in the NFL with a strong senior year. So to limit head-to-head blows, coaches moved Jackson from safety to cornerback.

All along, he continued to cover up scary symptoms. Jackson didn't tell anyone that when he high-fived a teammate or set a bar back on the squat rack, his head vibrated and he saw double.

"It'd always take that initial blow to rattle my head and then focus up," Jackson says. "I told them, 'I love doing this. I don't care if it's life-threatening. This is what I want to do.' … I'd do a lot of squinting. I didn't do a lot of squinting until after that point, but even to this day it's hard to see stuff. Even when I'm running sometimes, I get that double vision.

"That moment is what caused it."

And that moment—being Gronked—haunted him every hit that 2008 season. He couldn't shake the nightmare. In a 58-0 loss to Stanford, Jackson suffered another concussion that made his left arm go numb, and he lied to doctors. He said he was fine and played on. Jackson didn't want to lose his starting spot. And he wanted a piece of Gronk the next week in their rematch.

So much for happy endings.

Covering a punt against Arizona, Jackson tackled a returner and caught a cleat to his chin that effectively set his arm "on fire." His career was over. That was his final play.

"Some things are out of your hands, like the brain," he says. "There's no bench-press, no exercise you can do to exercise that."

It seems scientifically impossible: How does one player, Gronk, scramble another's brain by merely catching a pass? The safety is the one with the head start, the bad intentions, the license to drill. This hit occurred long before targeting rules changed the way safeties think play to play in college. That night, Jackson was out to seek and destroy and ended up destroying himself.

He can laugh about it all now.

Jackson feels fine today, though his girlfriend would beg to differ. She thinks his concussions have jumbled his short-term memory. As he ages, he'll gradually discover how much long-term damage they did. Jackson wrote the entire experience down on paper to read to his son one day.

Whenever Gronk's on TV at his house and his little brother's friends give him hell, he'll laugh, "I'm scared of that dude!" Sure, Jackson wonders what could've been. Where his NFL career would've gone. Today, he's the offensive coordinator at Hearne (Texas) High School and finds himself giving tips to the defensive backs.

"I was reckless," he says. "I had no remorse for what could happen until that night. I tell everyone now to be careful tackling. There are guys today who can kill you out on that field."

While he has not spoken to Gronk since their last encounter, Jackson is keeping a close eye on any safety, any Sunday who dares to hit Gronk high.

"I knew he was going to be exactly what he is now," Jackson says.


Embarrassing teammates

Pound for pound, no player at Arizona was stronger than Brandon Tatum. None. It wasn't close. This 6'1", 210-pound safety was a self-described "physical specimen," a gym rat who could bench-press 395 pounds once and squat 505 twice. A leader of the secondary then and a police officer now in Tucson, Arizona.

When a Greek God of a tight end showed up at practice, Tatum stepped into the one-on-one ring every chance he could.

Tatum won battles. Drago won others. And one day, Drago basically pantsed him in front of the entire team.  

"I mean," Tatum says, "he embarrassed me."

Unlike everyone else, Tatum pressed Gronk at the line. Fought fire with fire. So he attacked a one-on-one goal-line drill on this day with the same ferocity. Gronk released into his route, turned for the ball, Tatum dove for it and—simultaneously—Tatum's arm awkwardly pretzeled around Gronk's bicep. When Gronk held up the ball to show coaches he had maintained control, he miraculously lifted Tatum right up with him.

For a good two seconds, Tatum was suspended in the air.

He would've stayed suspended, too, if he didn't let go in humiliation.

"This dude is literally holding me up," Tatum says. "He's holding the ball. I'm hooked on his arm. If he wants to run, he would probably drag me. Both of my feet are in the air. I'm one of the strongest, fastest, most athletic players on the team, and he pretty much embarrassed me."

Teammates all laughed at Tatum, but it was only a matter of time before they had all been Gronked, too. The Benny Hill theme song should've played over the speakers at practice. Two or three times per week, at least, a teammate was Gronked. In one 11-on-11 scrimmage, Gronkowski carried safety Nate Ness on his back 30-plus yards downfield, prompting the defensive backs coach to cuss out his players for 30 minutes straight.

"I don't even think Gronk was slowing down!" Tatum says. "He was still running like he had no one on him."

Ah, memories. Tatum has more.

John Miller/Associated Press

The vice-grip hands. "It's not coming out of there. There's nothing you can do about it."

The freak physique. "Imagine the best athletic-build running back in the league, and then stretch him out to 6'5" with that compact, stout body. That's what you have in Gronkowski. It's impossible to tackle Gronk clean without cutting his legs or taking a ride. If you look at him, he has a six-pack!"

The fearlessness. Gronk didn't shy away from contact over the middle. No, contact is intoxicating to him. USC's Kevin Ellison once had a 20-yard head start at Gronk—"a wide-open kill shot," Tatum says—when Gronk wasn't even looking.

"Homeboy came in and just hit Gronkowski hard," Tatum says. "I mean he threw himself at Gronkowski."

Gronk was tackled, sure, but he hardly flinched.

Ellison, like Jackson, was the one punished.

"The dude was just laying there," Tatum says. "He was out for the count, man. I just remember thinking, We have to deal with this guy in practice all the time! He's putting out big-time players when any other tight end would be knocked unconscious."

The toughness. "Antonio Gates and some of these other bigger, athletic tight ends that you see, they're not as tough. They'll catch the ball, and they'll run out of bounds. They're soft. They're kind of pudgy."

The ridiculousness. Gronk's venomous playing style was never spiked with an equally malicious attitude. The exact opposite. To Tatum, he was always this "big goofy kid" who "never came across as this mature man." If the music's on, the shirt's off. Gronk couldn't dance. He had zero coordination and zero rhythm with limbs gyrating in Elaine Benes compulsions. Gronk turned on rap songs inside the Arizona locker room knowing full well he had no feel for the beat to actually bob and sway to those rap songs.

He's still the same goofball.

Only now, he busts out the dance moves for Waka Flocka Flame.


A night with Gronk

After all the shots were consumed, after they all left the party scene in rubble in February 2016, police raided Waka Flocka Flame's room on Gronk's Party Ship.

Waka had no clue what was going on.

"Imagine the border police, and you're drunk as s--t," Waka says. "They rush on and go, 'Ooo! Ahh! We've got to search!' They see you. I'm taking pictures like 'Chh, chh, chh, chh!' I'm drunk as well. That was something."

Waka pauses. Well. Uhh. On second thought, somebody staged the raid.

He re-investigates that scene in his mind.

"That was only my room. That was definitely staged. I asked everybody, and they're like, 'I didn't see no cops!' I think Gronk staged that if you ask me.

"I heard through the grapevine he staged it."

Even a rapper with 1.9 million followers on Twitter and 2.4 million on Instagram can get Gronked.

Gronkowski by default treats an offseason night out as if it's the eve of the apocalypse, and this was indeed the party to end all parties. Waka Flocka never raged quite like this before.

Originally, the rapper thought he'd be in for one day to perform, drink a little, then leave. Yet when he boarded the Gronk cruise, Waka was told he didn't have to perform until the next night.

"I find out I'm staying the night," Waka says, "and say 'Oh s--t!'"

He heard shouting. Everything looked "colorful." Bass pumped. And with one loud "Hey boy!" Gronk appeared. Waka was already a huge Patriots fan, and Tom Brady was his favorite quarterback, and the two clicked instantly. The author of the infectious anthem "Hard in da Paint" was Gronkowski's brother from another mother. He calls Gronk the white version of himself.

With rapper Sammy Adams on the beat and the likes of DJ Brooke Evers from Australia and Flo Rida in the crowd, the country's most powerful party duo was born.

"We had so much f--king fun," Waka says. "I know we went too f--king hard. I'm talking, like, throwing s--t all over. There was like a pool party. It was weird. It was different. You know what it was, man? It was like elementary kids going to school without a principal, without a teacher, without laws, free food, free drinks, loud music, no holds barred.

"It was like being in Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory with strobe lights and bass."

At one point, Gronk, Waka and WWE star Mojo Rawley staged their own Royal Rumble at the pool. DJ Whoo Kid captured part of the bout on his Instagram—Mojo's RKO of Waka into the pool. 

No principals were in sight, but there was a security camera in the room capturing everything. So with things "getting out of hand," Waka Flocka Flame covered up that camera with his shirt. He didn't want footage of this madness documented.

Property, naturally, was damaged, and Waka was ordered to pay the fine since he was the one who covered the camera.

With this cast of characters, he sniped, "What the f--k do they expect?" Mojo Rawley was "one turnt-up motherf--ker." The Gronkowski brothers were "wild motherf--kers." Of course, spontaneous, violent wrestling broke out. There was enough testosterone here to enter a new dimension. On their top level, Waka estimates there were 100-200 partying in all.

He downed Long Island iced teas. Gronk's poison? He's not sure. The rapper does remember doing shots of Jager with him.

"I'm not going to lie, man," he says. "This is the one trip where we really partied."

The two felt like college frat brothers who hadn't seen each other in years.

"He likes everything I like. Literally. He likes everything I like. The partying, sports, comedy, doing fun things. If I played football, I'd be Rob Gronkowski. I'd be 280-290 of solid muscle playing now."

And if Gronk were a rapper, he'd be Waka Flocka. The song "Grove Street Party" makes the rapper think of Gronk most. They still keep in touch. On stage, in April, Waka FaceTimed with Gronk during a concert. In private, they play Madden. Chill. Crack jokes. Drink.

"We don't really live that lifestyle of talking and asking questions," Waka says. "When we're around each other, we're just like, 'F--k that!' … He's basically like a … I don't know. He's just different. I've never met anybody like Gronk. He's definitely a good dude. He's an inviting person. Everybody likes him. He's just cool."

Yet here's Waka Flocka Flame's primary takeaway from being Gronked. As lit as that night was on the cruise—and, by God, was it lit—he couldn't believe how composed Gronk was. How poised. The rapper always tells people it's not the party that hurts the person; it's the person who hurts the person. Up close, Waka saw why Gronk is different than a Johnny Manziel, a Lindsay Lohan, a celebrity who doesn't see boundaries.

This TMZ darling won't self-destruct because, Waka says, he won't go overboard.

"Controlled chaos," he adds. "I can't explain it. We just get it. It's the 'it' factor."

They all inched close to the edge that night, but there were no injuries, no arrests and no regrets. The only collateral damage was that fine. And how much money did Waka Flocka Flame cough up for covering that camera?

Don't worry about it.

"I swiped my card and left the room," Waka says. "Let's just say it was worth it."


A coach's nightmare

The same Gronk suplexing friends is the one keeping NFL defensive coordinators up at night.

Mike Nolan first laid eyes on the tight end in late 2008, shortly after the 49ers fired him. This is how NFL coaches are wired. You're fired, and you're still magnetically drawn to the game. Nolan bought a plane ticket to Oregon to see his alma mater take on Arizona and, right then, he realized Gronkowski was special. This kid from Buffalo single-handedly cut a 48-17 Ducks lead to 48-45.

"Gronk was the guy just killing the Ducks," Nolan says. "They could not cover the guy."

Oregon hung on to win, 55-45, but Gronkowski caught 12 passes in all for 143 yards and a touchdown, and Oregon's nightmare soon became Nolan's nightmare. As the Dolphins defensive coordinator in 2010-11, he played Gronk four times. After holding rookie Gronk to one reception in his debut, Nolan's defenses were burnt for games of 6-102-1, 6-86-1 and 7-78. The details are a blur, but the difficulty of the matchup is not. Nolan offers a window into the mind of every coordinator who's faced a tight end the league never witnessed before.

Unlike a Jason Witten, a "stop and catch" tight end, Nolan says Gronkowski plucks passes in stride. Your only chance is to ding him off the line. If you sacrifice pass rush, so be it. You must detour his routes.

"You've got to bang him," Nolan says. "Then you have to have a good cover guy on top of that on him. If it's just a guy who looks like me, believe me, it's not going to work. He has to be one of those undersized linebackers with speed and mobility, because he's going to have to recover—Gronk is going to bang you and push you away. You've got to recover."

The only corner he considered using on Gronk was Sean Smith because of his size. A strong safety or linebacker is a must.

"If you're a stiff? He's going to kill you," Nolan says. "He's going to bang you, there will be separation and it's over."

FOXBORO, MA - NOVEMBER 13:  Rob Gronkowski #87 of the New England Patriots reacts after failing to catch a touchdown pass during the fourth quarter of a game against the Seattle Seahawks during a game at Gillette Stadium on November 13, 2016 in Foxboro, M
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Many coaches get too cute against Gronk. They install doubles and zones and exotic concepts, and one Gronk motion warps everything. One motion creates holes in your defense elsewhere. A cutback lane suddenly hemorrhages open for a running back, or a 5'9" slot receiver is matched up with a sluggish linebacker.

Other coaches wait until the week of to prepare for Gronk. That's an automatic death sentence.

"If you study what he does, at least it gives you a chance," Nolan says. "If you're talented enough, it gives you a chance. But if you go into that thing cold turkey? And on top of it you're not doing anything specific for Gronk? He's going to kill you."

Nolan cannot compare Gronkowski to anyone. Ever. Kellen Winslow could catch, sure, but he wasn't nearly the same presence in the run game. What makes Gronk different is his personality, that "it" factor Waka Flocka Flame can't quite pinpoint.

He treats a game like a party.

Like three hours of controlled chaos.

"It's like all your guys getting together to play ping-pong and competing," Nolan says. "You're trying to beat the hell out of your buddies. He plays football on the field the same way. He's trying to beat the hell out of you.

"It's like he gets a big kick out of it."


When you piss off Gronk…

Sergio Brown has been around Gronkowski long enough to nail the impersonation.

He deepens his voice into a caveman's octave, chomps his mouth like a horse and darts his eyes in distorted directions.

He's the one NFL safety who was able to get underneath Gronk's skin, the player who ended Gronk's 2012 season. Of course, even then, Gronk had the final word. Their heavyweight bout can be broken into three rounds.

Round 1: Patriots practice. The two entered the NFL in the same rookie class and were teammates for two seasons. Instantly, Brown became Gronk's new Tatum-like foil. Where others failed in one-on-one drills, Brown's "basketball mentality" to body up Gronk when the ball arrived gave him a chance. Between whistles, he talked as much trash as possible.

"Everything," Brown says, smiling. "Everything."

If Tom Brady passed to others, there was Brown in the tight end's face.

"You're not getting open!" he'd shout. "Brady's not even looking your way. It's over with. You're not catching another ball."

Brown screamed "Sunday Funday! Sunday Funday!" all practice long. Gronk loathed his antics. Brown loathed the fact that he couldn't hit his teammate.

When Brown signed with the Colts, this rivalry was bound to boil over.

Round 2: Patriots vs. Colts, Nov. 18, 2012. New England steamrolled Indy, 59-24, but the win came at a season-killing price. After a late Pats touchdown, Gronkowski lined up to block on the extra point but not before mocking Brown. "Sunday Funday!" he yelled at his old foe. "Sunday Funday!" That's all Brown needed to hear. "I'm about to f--k this up!" he warned Gronk. "I'm going to block this kick!"

Brown sprinted around the corner, and Gronk tried blocking him in a 1960s-like chicken-wing stance.

Bad move.

Brown broke the tight end's forearm, Gronk landed on season-ending IR and the Patriots lost in the conference championship to the eventual Super Bowl champion Ravens. Considering his team was already getting waxed, Brown didn't think twice when Gronk never re-entered the game. He had no clue he broke Gronk's arm until after the game, when he was berated as a dirty player.

"I'm trying to block the f--king kick," Brown says. "You shouldn't have blocked me like that. That's his fault.

"He shouldn't have gotten me mad."

Three months later, at a Super Bowl party in Las Vegas, Brown bumped into Gronk and tried to make amends.

"Yo, you OK man?" Brown recalls asking.

Gronk refused to shake his hand and walked away.

Round 3: Patriots vs. Colts, Nov. 16, 2014. The rematch took place in front of a Sunday Night Football national audience. Gronk wanted payback, and Brown refused to back down. "It was heated," Brown recalls. After sharing Gronk duties with Indy's other safety, Brown demanded Gronk exclusively in all Cover 1 situations.

Gronkowski beat him once—though Brown insists the tight end pushed off—and then this gnarly safety from Maywood, Illinois, elevated his trash-talking to a new level.

You're not catching another ball!

You're not getting open. You're getting Brady sacked!

And the doozy that really pissed off Gronk?

Remember why you have that arm brace on!

As Gronkowski's frustration mounted, and boiled, and mounted, and boiled, Brown clutched and grabbed and did everything in his power to ensure Gronk wouldn't catch a pass on his watch. Then, on a late Jonas Gray touchdown that sealed a 42-20 Patriots win, Gronkowski treated Brown like all those victims back in high school. He bench-pressed him five-plus yards out of bounds, smashing Brown into an NBC sideline camera.

He couldn't take Brown's jawing anymore. Afterward, Gronk famously said Brown was "yapping" all game, so he "threw him out of the club."

To this day, Brown is visibly ticked. Coaches told him all week not to retaliate, so he didn't.

"I wanted to come up swinging!" Brown says. "I know everybody's watching. I'm on TV."

Instead, he was embarrassed. Gronked. Like so many before him.

Brown never got his shot at retaliation, at Round 4. Let the record show that Brown has a ton of respect for Gronk, by far the best tight he's ever faced. Brown gives Gronk props for fighting back but, last season, was craving one more bout to decide it all.

"I want to see him again," Brown says. "I can't wait."

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - NOVEMBER 16:  Sergio Brown #38 of the Indianapolis Colts tackles Rob Gronkowski #87 of the New England Patriots during the third quarter of the game at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 16, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Andy Lyo
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Brown wasn't re-signed by the Bills. He's now a free agent.

Gronk, meanwhile, will be throwing more jokers out of the club soon enough.


So you're telling me there's a chance

Dig deep enough through the wreckage, and you'll find proof the man can be stopped. You'll find a safety who tried to lay Gronk out, failed and is still playing. Packers safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, like Alfonso Jackson, smelled blood on Nov. 30, 2014. Gronkowski caught a short slant, and one thought crossed Clinton-Dix's mind.

"I'm thinking, I'm going to win," he says. "I'm thinking, I'm going to kill him."

Clinton-Dix threw all of his 208 pounds at Gronk's torso and was essentially a bird splatting against the kitchen window.

"I tried to blow him up, man, and he blew me up," Clinton-Dix says. "I just knew from then on, never hit him high. Never hit him high again. I tried it. I took my shot. He wasn't even looking, and I still didn't win."

It stung. It was embarrassing.

After the game, Clinton-Dix tweeted:

But unlike Jackson, Brown, Tatum and everyone else, Clinton-Dix had the last laugh. With 3:31 left, at the Packers 20, Brady spotted the two locked wide left in one-on-one coverage and lofted a potential game-winner to the end zone. Clinton-Dix knew 100 percent the ball was coming. Who was he? A nobody. Who is Gronk? The gold standard. He stuck with Gronkowski stride for stride and poked the ball out at the last split-second to key a 26-21 Packers win.

Clinton-Dix believes this game, this moment, set the course for his entire pro career.

"I think I really found myself," he says. "I started believing in myself. I felt like I can run with the dudes. I can compete with that type of talent in this league."

The lesson: You must Gronk the Gronker.

"Everything's a mindset," Clinton-Dix says. "If you have the mindset that you think Gronk's going to beat you and it's impossible, he's going to win every time. If you think, Oh, God, I have this guy?, he's going to beat you every time. I promise you that."

Clinton-Dix is now one of the NFL's best young safeties. Recently voted the 77th-best player in the NFL by his peers, he finished with five picks and countless stinging collisions last season. He's fearless. He may grow into a Thomas Lite capable of dinging Gronk in center field when they meet again.

But then he's told the tale of Alfonso Jackson. He's informed that Gronkowski once ended a dude's career on the same collision at the same speed at his same position as his in 2014.

Clinton-Dix barely dodged the hurricane.

His eyes widen.

"See what I'm saying? See what I'm saying?" he says. "I ain't doing that."

Now, the Super Bowl champions will inconceivably welcome back the best tight end in NFL history. Gronkowski isn't through gronking yet—not even close. Attention, all defensive backs: Approach this moving object at your own risk.

Gronk is back. And his list of victims is bound to only grow.

And grow.

And he'll probably end a career or two in the process.

Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.


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