About 250 fans and a swarm of media members packed a Mall of America store this week just to watch a grown man play video games. But this was no ordinary grown man.
“Let’s go, Gronk!” “Let’s go, Gronk!” fans chanted at Patriots manchild Rob Gronkowski, who was holding an Xbox controller, smiling and gesticulating as an animated version of his No. 87 hauled in passes from Tom Brady.
Making this pre-Super Bowl scene more surreal, Gronkowski technically was still in the NFL’s concussion protocol after suffering a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit in the AFC Championship Game. He returned to practice last Saturday but didn’t officially clear the protocol until Thursday.
No doctor would prescribe bright lights, loud noises and suffocating crowds for a concussion patient. Gronkowski collected about $35,000 for the Xbox appearance, according to a person familiar with the deal, but lost the Madden ’18 game to Eagles running back LaGarrette Blount 33-13.
“My Madden skills aren’t as good as my real football skills,” Gronkowski assured the crowd Tuesday night.
Yes, Gronk is still Gronk — goofy, lovable, and an absolute freak of nature. But that’s not what makes a healthy Gronkowski so dangerous to Philadelphia’s championship hopes.
“I know we think of Rob as fun-loving Gronk, but he’s a professional,” Patriots captain Matthews Slater said. “He really takes what we do here seriously. He’s got a lot of God-given ability, but it’s not by accident that he’s been able to accomplish what he’s accomplished.”
At age 28, Gronkowski has 76 career TD receptions in eight seasons and already holds the NFL record for postseason TDs by a tight end, with 10.
For New England, this Gronkowski injury suspense was nothing new. He missed last year’s Super Bowl after having back surgery. He had a high ankle sprain in January 2012 and finished that Super Bowl loss to the Giants with just two receptions for 26 yards.
The only time Gronkowski was fully healthy entering a Super Bowl was three years ago, when he had six catches for 68 yards and a touchdown in a win over the Seahawks.
“If I played last year or if I didn’t play, this game would mean just as much,” Gronkowski said. “I’m just treating it the same. Every time I get a chance to play in the Super Bowl, you’ve got to cherish the moment to the max no matter what.”
Injury detours have affected Gronkowski since college at Arizona, where he was a two-year teammate with Eagles quarterback Nick Foles. Gronkowski missed his junior year after having back surgery, which caused him to slip to the second round of the 2010 draft.
“He barely played as a freshman at Arizona,” coach Bill Belichick said. “He had a decent sophomore year, and he didn’t play his junior year. As a football player, he was raw.
“I’m not saying that was his fault — I mean, it wasn’t. He’s a hard-working guy; he’ll do whatever you ask him to do. But he didn’t have much experience in really anything — a little bit of blocking, but certainly not much in the passing game. He’s improved in all those areas, because of hard work. He’s a very sophisticated player.”
Gronkowski looked anything but sophisticated in December when he drew a one-game suspension for a flagrant late hit of Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White.
That incident aside, the Patriots have seen signs of Gronkowski’s growing maturity. Slater noted the extra time he spends with Brady, mastering route running, and the efforts the 6-6, 265-pounder has made to take care of his body.
Gronkowski sounded a little bored Thursday. For the Patriots, that’s not all bad.
“There’s really nothing to do,” Gronkowski said. “I mean, obviously we ain’t hitting up no parties or anything. Yeah, we’re living at a mall. Just practicing, preparing, getting the body right, getting the mind right and basically preparing for the game.”
ESPN analyst Tedy Bruschi, who won three Super Bowls with the Patriots, sees Gronkowski starting to master the game’s finer points.
“First off, he’s such a bully coming off the line, and he knows how to be a bully to get separation,” Bruschi said. “I know he’s gotten called for pass interference, but he’s gotten better over the course of his career in being more subtle about using that off arm — when he’s breaking to his left, using his right arm, or vice versa — just a little chicken wing.
“And with Rob’s arm, it’s not little chicken wing. He gets a lot of separation from that.”
Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz won’t divulge how the Eagles plan to cover Gronkowski, but it’s a good bet Pro Bowl safety Malcolm Jenkins will be involved.
The challenge for any defense is that Gronkowski lines up all over the field, pinned up against the offensive line or split out like a wide receiver. He’s headed on a path toward the Hall of Fame, if he stays healthy.
“There are not too many Rob Gronkowskis who’ve played in the NFL,” Slater said. “Those are the guys who get the gold jackets, those unique special guys.”