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Gronk the Great helps power the Patriots

Inside the mad, mad world of New England star Rob “Gronk” Gronkowski, the touchdown machine and fan favorite

Patrots tight end Rob Gronkowski brought the crowd out of their seats as he celebrated his third touchdown against the Indianapolis Colts on Dec. 4. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff) Patrots tight end Rob Gronkowski brought the crowd out of their seats as he celebrated his third touchdown against the Indianapolis Colts on Dec. 4.
By Bob Hohler
Globe Staff / January 8, 2012
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Two entertainers crossed paths last month in a North Shore clothing store.

“Beautiful coat,’’ Lenny Clarke said as Rob Gronkowski checked his look in the mirror.

“I don’t know,’’ Gronkowski said. “It’s kind of expensive.’’

Clarke, the actor and comedian, was incredulous. “Kind of expensive?!’’

Gronkowski - you can call him Gronk - has gone, in just two seasons, from a name that barely fits on a game jersey to New England’s newest cult sensation, a history-making, Twitter-sizzling All-Pro; a playoff-bound laugh track who sheds tacklers like lint, puts pizzazz in Bill Belichick’s Patriots - and has Boston fans in full frenzy.

The day before their chance encounter at Giblees in Danvers, Clarke saw Gronkowski score three times on his way to establishing NFL season records for touchdowns (17) and receiving yards (1,327) by a tight end. With each celebratory, Richter-scale spike of the football, the 22-year-old phenom punctuated a magical season in which he helped propel the Patriots to a conference-best 13-3 record and a prized postseason position in their quest, which begins Saturday night in Foxborough, for the franchise’s fourth Super Bowl title of the century.

“You scored three touchdowns!’’ Clarke hollered at Gronkowski. “You’re a star! They’ll give you the coat for free!’’

Gronkmania is clearly an infectious condition.

Maybe you smiled at him tweeting the world a “Merry Gronkmas!’’ Or you cheered him as he rumbled into the end zone with would-be tacklers bouncing off him as if he were a bulldozer among bumper cars at the county fair.

Maybe you laughed at his slipping into Victoria’s Secret to snag a Christmas thong for one of his brothers - Dan and Chris play in the NFL, Glenn plays at Kansas State, and Gordie was drafted by the Anaheim Angels. Or you got a kick out of him celebrating a touchdown on the road by leaping like a super-sized Baryshnikov into the lap of a front-row spectator wearing a Patriots jersey.

Never mind that he has played only 33 NFL games. Wowed analysts tout him as a Hall of Famer in the making, and fans flock to GronkNation.com - a family-owned site - to get a piece of him. His autographed gloves ($199) and “Get Gronk’d!’’ beanie caps ($19.99) are sold out. His autographed cleats are still available for $399.

For Gronk, every stage of his kaleidoscopic ascent has been priceless - a little amazing even to him. It’s as if he’s a passenger on his own magic ride.

“It’s surreal how everything is going,’’ he said, steadfastly humble during an interview in the Patriots locker room. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I’m not taking anything for granted.’’

Even if you missed his weekly appearances for charities, you’ve likely heard something about Gronk’s wilder side - engaging in a racy Twitter exchange with Sports Illustrated swimsuit starlet Kate Upton, hamming it up with Playboy playmates at a charity golf tourney, or striking a pose with porn star BiBi Jones. He was shirtless, she sported his No. 87 Patriots jersey.

Jones tweeted the risque image and Gronk’s Twitter account blew up, his followers mushrooming from about 58,000 to more than 155,000. “It was pretty funny at the time,’’ he mused.

The humor was lost, however, on the Patriots’ brass, who take pride in the team’s image of professionalism and enforce a rigid “no distractions’’ rule. Gronk emerged apologetic from a closed-door scolding, yet the buzz from the photo session reverberated through the holidays.

“Do you believe in Santa Claus?’’ Gronk was asked later in the Patriots locker room.

“Yes, I do.’’

“Have you been a good boy this year?’’

“I’ve been naughty,’’ he confessed, flashing his daffiest Dudley Do-Right grin.

Naughty or nice, Gronkowski appears primed for good fortune, so physically gifted that even in the NFL - a showcase for the athletically elite - he is widely considered a freak of nature.

At 6 feet 6 inches and 265 pounds, Gronk dwarfs most humans and inspires tortured efforts to describe him in mere words.

He’s “a rhinoceros with a human head,’’ the Houston Press reported.

He’s “a gargoyle,’’ an awestruck Redskins defender uttered.

Gronk himself has seen a likeness: “a tyrannosaurus rex.’’

‘He’s not a Mercedes guy’

Once upon a time, the giant was a boy, a sixth-grader, already big for his age, when Tom Brady first donned a Patriots uniform in 2000. Now he is a marketer’s dream, a new-age social media savant with a touch of old-school grit, a chronic optimist free of pretension and rich in charm and exuberance.

He has a goofy side, certainly, but Gronk is no dummy (he was a high school honor student and posted a 2.9 GPA at the University of Arizona), and his guileless, rambunctious image is appealing to many marketers. At least seven companies, including a couple of national corporations, are pursuing endorsement deals with the record-setter, according to Cleon Daskalakis, president of Celebrity Marketing, Inc.

“For a player his age who is not a quarterback or a Heisman winner to be turning heads on a national corporate level in such a short period of time is amazing,’’ Daskalakis said. “That’s star power.’’

Daskalakis declined to identify the companies involved, but Gronk already has found a pixel-perfect match, having filmed promo spots for the Cartoon Network.

What’s next? A Gronkwurst breakfast sandwich at Dunkin’ Donuts?

“Rob may not be the best fit for very conservative organizations,’’ Daskalakis said. “But for an organization that understands his fun-loving nature at this stage of his career, he may be a great fit.’’

This much is clear.

“He’s not a Mercedes guy,’’ said his father, Gordy.

Gronk rolls in a Ford Explorer. But where his newfound fame will lead him remains uncharted. He said he is too busy playing football to spend much time exploring commercial opportunities.

“We’ll sit down after the season and figure out what kind of image we’re trying to cultivate,’’ his dad said. “Whatever it is, he has to be passionate about it.’’

The Patriots have Gronk under contract for two more seasons, thanks to a four-year, $4.4 million agreement they reached after they traded up to select him in the second round (42d overall) of the 2010 draft.

Just like that, the great-grandson of a Polish immigrant struck it rich. Gronk’s great-grandfather, Iggy, settled in Buffalo in the early 20th century and cycled for the United States in the 1924 Olympics.

A generation later, Gronk’s father anchored the offensive line at Syracuse, then played briefly for the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League.

He later made it big in business, founding G&G Fitness, now one of the nation’s largest fitness equipment retailers.

The perks included a $60,000 weight room in the family’s suburban Buffalo home. By eighth grade, Gronk was lifting regularly when he wasn’t trying to beat his brothers at everything from ice skating to belly-flopping in the backyard pool, the more contact the better.

“I swear, he loved pain,’’ his father said. “No matter how hard his brothers hit him - and there were some brutal hits - he came back for more. From the time he could walk, he’s been fearless.’’

Becomes a top prospect

By high school, Gronk was peerless in football, a power hitter in baseball, and so rugged in basketball that he once shattered a backboard in a rival school’s gym, ripping down the rim with a monstrous dunk.

He was so dominant in football that when his high school needed a win to reach the playoffs, he scored every point in a 14-13 victory: a two-point safety, a 40-yard fumble return, a 20-yard reception.

“He did stuff we’re still shaking our heads about,’’ said Mike Mammoliti, his coach at Williamsville North.

With his parents divorcing, Gronk transferred after his junior year from Williamsville to Woodland Hills near Pittsburgh, where he lived with his father. The departure followed a five-day, one-game suspension Gronkowski received for a vulgar e-mail that was sent from his account to a Williamsville teacher.

Gronkowski said in the Globe interview that the e-mail incident played no role in his decision to transfer. He otherwise declined to discuss the move, other than saying, “It was complicated.’’

Mammoliti downplayed the e-mail transgression.

“It was a bunch of kids goofing around and doing stupid stuff,’’ he said. “Rob got caught, but it was more like guilt by association.’’

Gronk served the suspension at Woodland Hills, where he enhanced his status as one of the nation’s top collegiate prospects.

At Arizona, they called him Drago after his doppelganger, Ivan Drago, the Soviet fighter in “Rocky IV’’ whose trainer said, “Whatever he hits, he destroys.’’

Gronk all but lived by Drago’s creed at Arizona until he underwent back surgery in 2009, costing him his third and final season of collegiate competition. He still managed to break every Arizona receiving record for tight ends before Belichick drafted and unleashed him on the NFL.

As a Patriot in 2010, Gronk set the franchise’s rookie record for touchdowns by a tight end (10) - a prelude to his mastery in 2011, when he caught more touchdown passes than the entire Cleveland Browns team.

By all accounts, he has done it with an air of relentless happiness. Gronk’s mother, Diane, who fed, clothed, and taxied him to countless athletic events, including 4:40 a.m. youth hockey practices, said she has seen him angry only twice: when he was passed over in the first round of the NFL draft, and when the Patriots lost to the Bills in September. “He’s never down in the dumps,’’ she said. “Everything is fun to him.’’

Gronk’s spirit, skills, and work ethic have endeared him to his teammates and Belichick. The coach, who typically disdains players who focus on personal records, acknowledged calling a play in the waning minutes of the regular-season finale against the Bills to ensure that Gronk edged Jimmy Graham of the Saints for the season’s most receiving yards.

“He’s had a great year and he’s worked hard,’’ Belichick said. “He deserved that.’’

The gift made for an even merrier Gronkmas.

“I’m very grateful to my coaches and teammates,’’ Gronk said. “The way everything has been clicking together is great.’’

So great that he bought that beautiful coat.

Bob Hohler can be reached at hohler@globe.com.

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