In sports, there’s a way to be rich and famous that makes you want to stay poor and unknown. Ricky Williams has that. So do Chad Ochocinco, Terrell Owens, Michael Vick, and Ben Roethlisberger: this sense that the money and the celebrity and all their trappings (the drugs, the women, the spending, the access to reality-television producers) are just inducements to misery. It all sounds like so much fun. People tweet about you. The lucrative endorsements pile up. Maybe you date a Kardashian or present Best Kiss while onstage in the midst of a Rihanna–Jessica Biel sandwich. But watching it at home, fun isn’t what you feel. It’s stress. The success is heavy. It’s expensive.
On the other hand, there are guys who just can’t believe it. I mean, they just can’t. They’re rich and famous and playing record-breaking football on a team that rarely loses. They’re young. They’re popular. They’re living the dream. These are guys like Rob Gronkowski, the scalably tall, unstoppably exuberant 23-year-old New England Patriots tight end. In July, Gronkowski, his brother Gordie, and some friends made human wheelbarrows on the red carpet at the ESPY Awards. Rob dropped a People’s Elbow on Gordie. According to this site’s editor-in-chief, Bill Simmons, he then led a moment of group urination — “crossies” — in a men’s room stall, sprinted up a down escalator, and went wild with excitement when told he was, indeed, at an establishment that tolerates shirtless partying.
The whole evening might have been a stunt. But “stunt” isn’t what you feel with Rob Gronkowski. Brian Wilson showing up to 2011’s ESPYs in a spandex bodysuit made to look like a tuxedo — that’s a stunt, as amazing as it was. With Gronkowski, those metrics of intentionality don’t mean anything. This is who he is. Another player, at this point, might inspire people to come forward with accusations of harassment. We’d hear tales of disrepute, wantonness, and profligacy. There’d be dirt. That, of course, is Gronkowski’s singular feat. He’s an ass, not an asshole; a drinker, not a drunk. He became a star last year because there’s an enticing innocence to the naked photos and horseplay and group urinating. He appears to live life like a Nickelback cover of “Call Me Maybe.”
The NFL is long on stars, ones with problems and without. But Gronkowski is the only one who seems genuinely beside himself. Success hasn’t gone to his head. It’s gone to his arms and his pecs and his calves and his Twitter account. It’s gone to his party budget. He set NFL tight end records last year for receiving touchdowns, touchdowns, and receiving yards. These are achievements people watch in awe, yes. But you also watch Gronk stalk into the end zone and spike the football with hilarious too-muchness, and think about the way, in a teen comedy, the quarterback’s friend would hurl a keg or destroy a kitchen.
Isn’t that also part of what’s to be loved about Gronkowski? In the NFL, he’s singular. In culture, he’s a type. We call him “Gronk,” the way we call Seann William Scott “Stifler” or the WWE’s Mike Mizanin “The Miz.” He should seem scarier, rapey-er, frattier, loonier, cartoonier than he does. He’s like some of his forebears — Brian Bosworth and Jeremy Shockey, for instance — but minus the polarizing cockiness and behavioral extremity. It’s just hard to beware a guy who does a human wheelbarrow in a suit on his way into an awards show. You don’t see menace in those eyes. You see “TGIF.” You see the dude who brought Spuds MacKenzie to the party boat.
Despite his size, Gronkowski presents no threat. When he poses for the cover of ESPN The Magazine‘s body issue wearing a pair of enormous foam fists, it’s entirely possible to see the fists and never once think about any other anatomical correlation between the size of a man’s hands and the size of what’s in his jock strap. It would be entirely impossible to see, say, Vernon Davis, a tight end for the 49ers, and do the same. That owes more to how we perceive a strapping naked white guy versus how we perceive a strapping naked black one. But with Gronkowski, some of the reason for his fame is that he’s unloaded. There’s no baggage. He’s just a guy, one with freakish athleticism, sure. But off the field, the freak could also be in your pledge class. A lot of elite stars in the NFL are men you aspire to be (Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, to name two). Others are men you already are. For young guys and guys who remember being young, Gronkowski is one of the latter. He’s actually the ultimate example of those men.
He doesn’t seem vain or overly concerned with his appearance. He’s not insanely muscled or “manscaped.” At some point last year, he played in a Mohawk that looked cut by a Weed Whacker. I’ve never seen him in clothes that suggest a style greater than “I hear these make me look civilized.” He doesn’t have an image to promote or protect. He seems … free.
For now. During the summer, the Boston Globe reported that the Patriots management rebuked Gronkowski. It seems they want the carousing and nudity and fun to end. It’s unsurprising. Robert Kraft and Bill Belichick run the sort of tight ship for which someone whose nationally known nickname sounds like an energy drink, a death metal sub-sub-genre, and an urban dance craze (“Kids. They’re Gronking!”) can, himself, seem mutinous. Was Gronkowski’s jock-jam summer a distraction or the sort of positive exclamation of individualism a place like New England needs? I don’t know that regulation is called for, even if it will further enhance his play, if he’ll abide it. The season is young, so we’ll see. But Gronkowski strikes me as the sort of caged bird that won’t sing.
Before the front-office wrist slap, Gronkowski could be the kind of star he is because his personality doesn’t appear to cost him anything. Men like Tim Tebow or Sanchez or Michael Vick don’t have the luxury of being as naturally “wow” as Gronkowski is. Their attempts at being carefree would smack of being careless. Gronkowski isn’t carrying a franchise or a region on his shoulders. He isn’t bearing the burdensome self-consciousness of blackness. If nothing else, his behavior is an exclamatory rejection of heaviness and expectation, of those stupid, oppressive, and undying social institutions that he had nothing to do with creating or fostering and doesn’t want to uphold. He signifies certain privileges of whiteness — casual public nudity, being nationally celebrated for acting like a fool — without embracing them. Really, his race is just fun.