A Super Bowl Preview for People Who Don’t Know Football (2015 Edition)

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Like an all-night rager in the apartment upstairs or a crying infant on a red-eye, the Super Bowl is one of those ineluctable public occurrences that’s seemingly impossible to stop and difficult to ignore. Some of us, particularly in the Pacific Northwest and the snow-slapped Eastern seaboard are genuinely excited; many more of us, lured by free alcohol, social pressure, or expensive commercials, acquiesce to the experience. Even those Americans who completely despise the thing understand that their behavior is a reaction, if not an abnegation, and thus itself is a recognition of the Super Bowl as cultural behemoth to be embraced or avoided, but not nullified. Ignore the Super Bowl, and it waves back at you anyway, like college kids on a party bus.

 

WHIP DEFLATION NOW

For lack of a better narrative to fill the two weeks between the Conference Championship games and the Super Bowl, the sports media’s focus has been on whether the New England Patriots knowingly deflated footballs for competitive advantage in their last game, a 45-7 victory over the Indianapolis Colts. If you really want to know more about this, there are sound primers on the unimaginatively named “Deflate-gate” on Pats Pulpit (among other places), there’s a much-mocked press conference from Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, and there’s SNL’s parody of the whole shebang. Even if the Patriots and their coach Bill Belichick are found culpable before Sunday, it won’t change their presence in the Super Bowl, and that’s good, because they’ve clearly earned the right to play February football from a performance standpoint.

“Deflate-gate” may be one of the few public scandals appropriate to its overplayed suffix; in a home game against a grim, turbid Indianapolis team, the Patriots didn’t need to deflate footballs to beat the Colts any more than Nixon needed to break into a hotel to beat McGovern. Watching the Colts attempt to stop the Patriots was like watching them try to light mud on fire, and while the sincerity of their effort was ultimately depressing, the inevitable result was not as off-putting as McGovern’s. In each of these two contests, accused cheaters won landslide victories, and whatever advantages the illegalities gained proved to be at best negligible and alarmingly unnecessary, which may tell you something about the nature of the victors.

 

METHODS OF MODERN COACHING

That said, other than sharing an amusing, rabid penchant for risky competitive gambits, a public position of “secrecy as virtue,” and a diverse collective of detractors, the comparisons between Gloomy Gus and Bill “Belicheat” Belichick may stop there. Putting a stated premium on versatility, punctuality, and unselfishness while making personnel decisions, Belichick has developed successful offensive players who were ignored by other NFL coaches coming out of college (Tom Brady, Julian Edelman) or were castoffs from other teams (Wes Welker, LeGarette Blount, Danny Woodhead, Brandon LaFell). It’s been an island of misfit toys out there in Massachusetts, but whether you’re a first-round pick from Florida or an undrafted free agent from Chadron State, everybody gets a chance within the coach’s peculiar and astonishingly successful system, and it’s inspired several players to take less money just to play for the guy. The Daily Kos even goes so far as to call Bill Belichick a “progressive” and his team management style “communist.”

If that’s the case, the opposing head coach, Pete Carroll of the Seattle Seahawks, is the Elizabeth Warren to Belichick’s Hillary Clinton. About twenty Seahawks players participate in elective group meditation sessions, but a yoga class is mandated; the team chef serves the players fruits and vegetables from local farms and feeds the leftovers to the team’s own free-range chickens. Player movement is tracked via GPS to ensure that everyone is training and practicing appropriately. “I wanted to find out if we went to the NFL and really took care of guys, really cared about each and every individual, what would happen?” Pete Carroll tells ESPN.

Seahawks assistant coach Tom Cable agrees with Carroll’s nurturing approach to the game. “If I go ballistic on a guy,” he says, “who is wrong? I am. I’m attacking his self-confidence and he’s learning that if he screws up, he’s going to get yelled at. If you make a mistake here, it’s going to get fixed.”

While the Green Bay Packers’s team activities are arguably more fun—as the Wall Street Journal reported, they play Settlers of Catan together—the Seattle players clearly respond to Carroll’s tactics, and with appearances in consecutive Super Bowls, they’re evidently successful.

Consequently, last year’s Super Bowl preview covered the backstories of Seattle players Russell Wilson and Richard Sherman. I also wrote a segment on New England quarterback Tom Brady back in 2012 when his Patriots played the Giants. Although all three of these players are extremely high-profile, I won’t re-tell their stories.

Many of the remaining 103 young men participating in America’s largest televised spectacle, like Richard, Russell, and Tom, have withstood untold privations and regimens, furious heartbreak and doubt, the brevity of victory and the permanence of compromise. In many cases, they were born into circumstances hopelessly remote from this most visible of American achievements. To be worthy of your time, they’ve made choices that you and I wouldn’t fathom, they were bent in places where we would break, and for now, Sunday’s event is the result of their accumulated pain and success.

You don’t have to enjoy the game or even approve of the NFL’s existence to understand and appreciate these people. Before they pass from your TV screen, take a look at them, and understand them; our comprehension of their journey—from its public highlight on Sunday to the anonymous vicissitudes before and after—is perhaps their best hope for a better life beyond all this. As I wrote in November, these young men, the wondrous avatars and violent children of our weekends, have something to teach us. Don’t look away.

 

MARSHAWN LYNCH

Aside from his profession as a running back for the Seattle Seahawks, Marshawn Lynch is, in most ways, a typical American. Like anyone else, the lineaments of his success are consistent with the status symbols of his childhood and hometown. Like many good kids, he was a dreamer who wanted to grow up to help his family. Like many good men, his true heart is not for public view, and like many famous people, he’s wary of your motives.

A combination of these attributes earned Marshawn a $100,000 fine from the NFL last November for not interacting with the media. While not required by the Seattle Seahawks—Pete Carroll certainly doesn’t care if Marshawn talks to the press or not—the NFL, as part of its assiduous image maintenance, demands that its marquee players routinely supply the media with content. You don’t have to watch football to guess that most of this patter is the verbal equivalent of a store-bought Halloween costume, and because variations from this banal pattern often receive undeserved, rabid scrutiny, an enforced vapidity has long been the norm among athletes and their image managers. One should not critique Marshawn for wanting no part of this.

“He cares a lot more about his teammates than people think. He cares a lot more about this game than people think,” former Seahawk fullback Michael Robinson tells the Seattle Times. “He’s just not a guy that’s going to do it for the camera. That’s how he is.”

While he’s willing to perform when he calls the shots (as with his recent endorsement deal with Skittles, his favorite candy going back to childhood) his scant press interviews usually range from curt to succinct. NFL Network reporter Deion Sanders happened into what qualifies as Marshawn Lynch (Kurt Rogers, San Francisco Chronicle)Marshawn’s mission statement when Marshawn told him, “I’m all about that action, boss … I ain’t never seen no talking that ever mean nothing. Been like that since I was little. I was raised like that.”

Marshawn’s “action” also happens to speak volumes. Nicknamed “Beast Mode” since his teenage years, Marshawn has an unusual talent for breaking tackles and finding an extra gear, perhaps best exemplified by this astonishing run against the New Orleans Saints a few years back. Seahawks fans love the guy; they’ve made his jersey one of the top-selling in football and caused Seattle-wide Skittles shortages in the lead-up to last year’s Super Bowl. These exploits make him worthy of the attention—if he wanted it.

Perhaps in retaliation, the media hasn’t downplayed Marshawn’s indiscretions and scrapes with the law, which mostly happened while he was a young player on his first team, the Buffalo Bills. He’s endured a hit-and-run charge he incurred while rolling through Buffalo’s bar district, a misdemeanor weapons charge, a DUI, and a citation for playing loud music—while in the Bills’ stadium parking lot.

“I would like to see them (critics) grow up in project housing authorities, being racially profiled growing up, sometimes not even having nothing to eat, sometimes having to wear the same damn clothes to school for a whole week,” Marshawn told Jeffri Chadiha, in a rare interview for ESPN E:60. “Then all of a sudden a big-ass change in their life, like their dream come true, to the point they’re starting their career, at 20 years old, when they still don’t know shit. I would like to see some of the mistakes they would make.”

Characteristically, Marshawn will not often talk about his difficult upbringing in a dangerous Oakland neighborhood. Marshawn’s mom, Delisa Lynch, a single parent working two jobs, struggled to support Marshawn and his siblings, and couldn’t often be around to keep them out of trouble or be there when someone let them down. Also, she permitted, but did not encourage, Marshawn’s relationship with his biological father, Maurice Sapp. “He chose a different lifestyle than what I wanted,” she says. “And let’s leave it at that.”

Marshawn badly wanted to spend time with his dad, however, and Maurice was around until Marshawn was eleven, doing things like taking him to church, but then got in trouble with the law and became increasingly remote.

In his E:60 interview, Marshawn told Chadiha about a time he went to his dad’s place only to have his father abandon him. “Moms would be like, I’m going to take you over here, to your dad’s house,” Marshawn says. “And when I get there, my dad’s like, OK, I’ll be right back, and then you don’t see this guy for like two days or something. And then after a while you build up numb feelings to that. You start to expect the worst from people.”

“The biggest letdown was his father,” his high school coach, Delton Edwards, told the New York Daily News. “That was the biggest letdown of all time. He wanted to build a relationship with his father, and it was there at times. But it never materialized.”

Marshawn also attributes some of his reticence to the tough neighborhood where he was raised. “Being from Oakland, you see a lot of things,” Lynch told ESPN this week. “You see friends turn on friends all the time. You see family turn on family.”

The family that was there for Marshawn—including his mom, uncles, and cousins, many of whom were talented athletes, saw a lot of potential in the shy, hurt little kid who ate Skittles before games and showed unusual endurance from a young age. “I’ll tell you why, and nobody knows this either,” Delisa tells Seahawks.com. “When I was pregnant with Marshawn, he was supposed to have a twin. When I had Marshawn, another placenta came out. That’s when the midwife said, ‘Don’t be surprised if he’s an amazingly strong child.’ So Marshawn is a twin to himself.”

Whether the cause of his football ability is talent, work ethic, or an extra placenta, Marshawn’s athleticism and academic performance got him into the University of California—Berkeley, where he was a star for the Golden Bears football team and earned a 3.2 GPA as a Social Welfare major. Before he even began his NFL career, he understood that he could leverage his status as a prominent athlete to make a difference in his community, the way people like Delton Edwards and his uncles had made a difference for him.

When Marshawn went pro and picked an agent—naturally, a local Bay Area guy named Doug Hendrickson—Doug was amazed at his new client’s focus. “In the first meeting, he wasn’t asking about his contract,” he told Peter King. “Honest to God, his dream was to build a youth center for kids in Oakland.”

In 2011, Marshawn teamed up with a cousin, NFL quarterback Josh Johnson, to launch a Bay Area non-profit called the Fam 1st Family Foundation. He hosts hundreds of kids each year at a free football camp, and plans to do much more; his fully-realized youth complex will have a computer lab, a gymnasium, a music studio, and will increasingly segue from its current focus on sports. “The main component we want to teach is basic life skills I feel a lot of kids are missing,” Marshawn said to Sports Illustrated. “How to balance a checkbook, create a résumé, how to fill out a job application, how to speak with confidence one-on-one.”

“This is not a vanity project,” says supporter and current California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, who met Marshawn when Gavin was mayor of San Francisco. “I’ve been in this racket long enough to have seen a lot of athletes who are just going through the motions, just checking a box. Marshawn has a deep commitment. He genuinely cares about his community, which is inspiring to see. Not only is he going to get this place built, but I’m going to predict the doors will never close.”

In addition to the non-profit and the youth center, Marshawn also does a lot of day-to-day assistance with disadvantaged children, from turkeys on Thanksgiving and presents on Christmas to free tickets to games and tours of the locker room. Pointedly, he’s disallowed the team’s media relations staff from inviting the press to witness any of these interactions with kids and their families.

“I think he’s a great philanthropist. He does anything for kids,” says Richard Sherman, one of the handful of other Seahawks who have started a non-profit. “And I think that if more people saw that side of him, they would look at him differently.”

“I feel that’s most important,” Marshawn told 710 ESPN Seattle. “To put a different light into their lives and let them know that they actually do have a chance.”

In saying so, Marshawn seems redolent of James Baldwin, who wrote in Nothing Personal: “It is necessary, while in darkness, to know that there is a light somewhere, to know that in oneself, waiting to be found, there is a light.”

“Generations do not cease to be born,” Baldwin continues in the same essay. “And we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have.”

Marshawn says, “Most people told me growing up that I would either be dead or in jail by the age of 18. I have friends that didn’t make it to 18. I’ve got homeboys now that have been in jail since they was 16. This is something that I wanted to change in my neighborhood. I felt if I could influence one kid to try to help them through life, that’s a win for me.”

 

JULIAN EDELMAN

Fifteen years ago, it would’ve been difficult to imagine Julian Edelman someday playing in the Super Bowl. At the time, even a spot on the JV high school football team would’ve been as elusive as the Golden Hind of Artemis or a vegan restaurant in Wyoming. His freshman year at Woodside High in California, Julian walked through the front doors at 4-foot-11 and 70 pounds. His father, Frank Edelman, owner of a local auto repair shop, had his son playing sports since he could walk, but now, when it really mattered, Julian was laughably outsized and outmuscled.

He tried out for the team anyway.

“He went through complete hell as an individual,” Frank told the Boston Globe. “He was four-foot-nothing, just getting killed out there. And all I would say is, we kept our focus going year to year—let’s just be a better player, let’s keep our grades up, and let’s just focus on our task at hand.”

In time, puberty kicked in, and by the time he graduated from high school, Julian gained eleven inches and a hundred pounds; still small by modern football standards, but it was more than enough weight for Julian to push around. His senior year, he posted Division I-quality numbers as a high school quarterback, but no college football scouts seemed to notice the stats—looking at his file, they just saw the two numbers that were out of Julian’s control.

He didn’t receive a single scholarship offer from anywhere, and ended up taking his talents to a junior college in San Mateo. From there, he was noticed by a coach from faraway Kent State, in Ohio, Julian Edelman ( (AP Photo_Michael Dwyer)and the undersized little powerhouse from California would be given a shot to compete for the starting quarterback job.

His first day there, Julian met his QB competition, a six-foot-six transfer student from the football powerhouse Baylor, practicing kicks.

“Keep on practicing those, because pretty soon that’s all you’ll be doing,” Edelman said. “I’m taking your job.’”

“It was fairly quick,” Kent State Coach Doug Martin admitted to Kent Wired. “He came in and competed during camp and after the first scrimmage, it was evident that he was the best option and one of the best players on the field.”

Julian led his new team to a 6-6 record, as many wins as the previous two years combined. His performance, energy and drive soon caught the attention of one NFL coach in particular—Bill Belichick—who drafted Julian in the final round of the 2009 NFL draft.

Of course, Tom Brady, the Patriots’s All-Pro, Super Bowl-winning quarterback, was certainly not going to start practicing kicks at Julian’s behest. If Julian was ever going to take the field for the Patriots, he was going to have to play a position he’d never tried before.

Belichick told Julian, “I don’t know what we’ll do with you, but we’ll find something.”

Converted to wide receiver, Julian now has the third-most catches in the NFL the last two years (197), behind only a couple of three-time Pro Bowl receivers named Antonio Brown (239) and Demaryius Thomas (203). An indispensable member of a talented Patriots team, Julian has appeared on offense as a wide receiver and quarterback, on special teams as a punt returner and kick returner, and on defense as a cornerback, making him perhaps the most versatile athlete currently in the game.

“Julian’s worked extremely hard,” Coach Belichick told Boston.com. “I would say he’s developed skills in two areas—punt return and receiver—that he didn’t have any experience at. That’s not an easy thing to do at all. You’ve got to give a lot of credit to the amount of work and dedication and training that he’s put into that.”

Julian also happens to be one of the funnier players in the game. During the last offseason, he wrote and starred in a fake talk show called “Burger Tyme” in which he cast a Patriots defensive end (Chandler Jones) as his guest and the team’s punter (Ryan Allen) as the set PA. He may not be Andy Kaufman, but the fact that an NFL player would conceive of and execute this on his own time is almost as impressive to me as anything Julian does on the field. When a journalist grilled Julian about his Jewish credentials (Julian is a quarter Jewish on his father’s side, and identifies as Jewish) it came out that he’s a fan of Woody Allen and Neil Simon, so his comedic influences, at least, are unassailable. He’s already done another bit called “Smoothie Tyme,” and perhaps there’s more to come. Until then, he’s going to continue to be an overachieving, competitive pest to opponents and teammates alike.

“He’s like a 12-year old,” college teammate Brian Lainhart said to ESPN. “But it’s his best trait. Julian’s still playing like a little undersized kid that nobody thought would make it.”

 

DOUG BALDWIN

Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin is the kind of NFL player you’d show off to your mother. Articulate and Stanford-educated, Doug’s childhood combination of a pious, middle-class suburban home life with an urban Pensacola recreational life broadened his perspective, and due to his mom Cindy’s Filipino heritage, he developed a holistic, humanitarian worldview. I know it’s personal for Doug, but I don’t recall any other pro athletes tweeting about Typhoon Hayian when it devastated Leyte.

“For a long while, my grandmother didn’t know if her family back there was safe,” Baldwin said to Seahawks.com. “It was a scary time. She finally got a phone call that told her all of her family was alive and safe. Many of their houses were destroyed, but there were no serious injuries. It was a real relief.”

When asked about the Filipino culture he was raised with, Doug told Rappler.com, “Don’t get me wrong, I like pancit, I like chicken adobo, but lumpia is probably the best,” but he’s also quick to mention his mother’s and grandmother’s greater influence, inspired by the privations the latter experienced in her homeland. “My grandma would tell me about how it was a struggle to put food on the table,” he added. “They told me about how their lives had been and how they got through those times. They taught me my values growing up.”

Raised in the affluent Pensacola suburb of Gulf Breeze, Florida, by strict, religious parents, including a father, Doug Sr., who was a police lieutenant, Doug was a high achiever—a member of the National Honor Society, Math Honor Society, and Spanish Honor Society—and earned an academic scholarship to Stanford. Doug Baldwin (Photo by Elton Lugay_The FilAm)However, Doug also was one of just a few mixed-race or African-American kids at his high school, and spent a lot of time in Pensacola proper, where he found that community, played football with a Salvation Army team, and befriended other ambitious athletes like future NFL running back Alfred Morris.

However, Doug’s path to a college football gridiron wasn’t going to come as easy as Alfred’s. Playing time was tough to come by on a stacked Stanford Cardinal team led by future Indianapolis Colts star Andrew Luck, and combined with the rigors of his studies (Doug was a science, technology, and society major) Doug became frustrated with the entire Palo Alto experience. He called his mom and told her that he wanted to quit. “My mental state was in shambles,” he admitted to the San Jose Mercury News.

“I told him, ‘Quit being a brat,’” Cindy Baldwin said, and reminded him how blessed he was to be at Stanford and playing football at all. It was a rare period of self-doubt for the high-achieving young man, and today Doug credits his parents for being the people who saw him through it. “In retrospect, I think I was suffering from depression,” he told writer Chrissy Carew. “My mom came to the rescue.”

Doug stuck it out, and in 2010, opportunities at kick returner and wide receiver opened up for him. Though he’d proved himself a high-energy, talented athlete, the NFL ignored the Stanford graduate, and his only opportunity to make an NFL team was with the Seattle Seahawks as an undrafted player. Before the final day of cuts his rookie year, he called a college friend to see if he could interview for a job at Dropbox, just in case he didn’t make the team.

Doug did make the cut, and took it as a sign that his maximum-effort style was paying off. One of 22 undrafted players on the Seattle roster (among the league’s highest ratio of once-unwanted players) he’s befriended the other undrafted players, who sometimes have to remind Doug that his self-described “boulder on his shoulder” is doing the talking for him.

“They tell me, ‘Hey, look, calm down a little bit,’” Doug says. “I’m still this fiery, passionate guy. I was perceived OK before because they thought I was fighting [to make the team]. And to me, I still am.”

In addition to being spirited on the field, he’s outspoken off of it as well, taking to Twitter to rant against consumerism and the narcissism of some of his fellow NFL players. “And to my colleagues who think you are the shit because you play football,” he tweeted, “Dumbass, you play football … what do you contribute to the world?

Doug seems to have also asked that question of himself, and in a recent profile, indicates that he has a more important mission in life than pro football. “I’ve been kind of thinking about what I want to do after football and my idea has been to be a math teacher, a high school math teacher,” he told Seahawks.com. “Being a high school teacher, you can affect or impact kids more so than you can as a football player, so I feel like that’s kind of the road I want to go down.”

Even reaching a second Super Bowl in a row, something that hasn’t happened in a decade, Doug seems unfazed. Amid the lights and attention of America’s largest televised event, the generous, worldly perspective that he grew up with, and briefly lost while frustrated at Stanford, seems incredibly present.

“All of this media attention for a game, for a sport, it’s really unbelievable,” Doug tells the GMA Network. “I think this is unnecessary and overwhelming to some degree. I am a football player. I don’t save lives.”

 

ROB GRONKOWSKI

Of the overplayed and hopeful Jack Kerouac quotes that find their way onto college dorm walls and are spot-welded onto the modi operandi of the young, smart, and aimless, none is more frequently seen than this: “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”

In much the same way that Kurt Cobain despised that his music appealed to legions of the cruel, unsympathetic young men who inspired him to make songs like “In Bloom” in the first place, Kerouac would probably chafe at the notion of his words being applied to someone like New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. Although the confines of Kerouac’s taste surely intended his words for a specific cadre of bebop intellectuals, we no longer live in such a time, and the dreamy kids today who cherish the idea of Kerouac will certainly, even in their maddest, most desirous hours, fall hopelessly short of the exploits and manner of the evangelical voluptuary called Gronk.

It’s been long since the diadems of deviance and vice have been wrested from the heads of elites and intellectuals, but to assume that the pop stars, porn stars, and jocks who are now having all of the fun are lacking complexity is demeaning and absurd. You can “hate ‘em because you ain’t ‘em,” Rob Gronkowski (Martin Scholler for ESPN The Magazine)sure, but perhaps the public triumph of Gronk, party monster, is perverted foremost by predictability, and the private triumph of Rob Gronkowski, the man, is yet to come.

The man who now owns a custom party coach called “The Sinner’s Bus,” employs a driver/cleaner/aide-de-camp named Robert Goon, hosts a football camp just for women (where, of course, alcohol is served), and trademarked the phrase “Yo soy fiesta,” began life as one of Gordon and Diane Gronkowski’s five sons, an upbeat young jock in an athletic upper-middle class family.

“We always got in fights,” Rob says of his childhood. “Throwing plants, breaking chairs, the tables and everything. Our parents were always so mad at us. It was a good time, but it was pretty dumb breaking everything, because at the end we had to clean it up.”

Diane remembers spending $500 a week on groceries to feed her rapidly growing, athletic sons, four of whom would one day play professional sports. They would eat two six-pound bags of hot dogs as a snack before dinner, which was often served in the car on the way to some game, practice, or scrimmage.

“We didn’t go out to eat,” Diane tells Patriots.com of these days.

Irrespective of the cost, she didn’t have the time. She would get up as early as five a.m., sometimes sleeping in her clothes, in order to get her sons to their respective sports. “Very few times did my kids look up into the stands and I wasn’t there,” she says. “And if I wasn’t there, I was at one of the other boys’ games.”

She recalls most of them as being occasionally thankful, but not Rob. “He was always tough on me,” Diane Gronkowski said to ESPN. “Of the five of them, he gave me the hardest time. He was always pushing, always challenging.”

Diane and Gordon divorced when Rob was still living at home, and when he left his mom in New York to live with his father in Pittsburgh, he finally began to recognize the role his mother had played in his life.

“I’m so appreciative,” Rob says now. “My mom did all the dirty work … with five of us, that was a lot. But we never missed a meal.”

“Maybe going away like that made him realize how much he had,” Diane says. “I’m not talking material things. I mean a lot of love and support. Maybe it took him having to do it without me to realize I wasn’t so bad.”

It also took some growing up, and en route, the still-rebellious, happy-go-lucky jock accepted a scholarship to the University of Arizona, a notorious party school.

His college coach, Mike Stoops, called him “somewhat naïve” and “a competitive fool,” but also told Sports Illustrated, “don’t get lost in his awkward silliness. It’s not immaturity. He’s a great competitor.”

Yet, it’s the “awkward silliness” that’s remembered from his Arizona years. And who can fault a college kid for having a great time? Thanks to the Internet, it’s still easy to find videos of his shirtless dancing and party exploits that date back to his wild days in Tucson. Nor did the late nights and hangovers hurt his dreams; he showed enough talent on the college gridiron to be a second-round pick of the Patriots in 2010. The party came along.

By 2011, he was living in an ersatz frat house with fellow Patriots players Dane Fletcher and Niko Koutovides. Described by Sports Illustrated as “defiantly unrefined,” the home’s contents included the initials FGK (for the surnames of the residents) in duct tape on the wall, a kitchen stocked with plastic utensils and paper plates purloined from the Patriots’ facilities, a badly damaged kitchen table, and all of the women and booze they could withstand. “We were into the same things—girls and hanging out and having a good time on top of football,” Dane Fletcher tells SI.

It doesn’t strike me as vastly different from how a lot of my friends lived, and/or wanted to live, right out of college, but they weren’t professional athletes making six and seven-figure salaries. Perhaps, like a lot of men in their early twenties, Rob felt that dignity could wait. To quote Kerouac again, “let that be recorded in heaven’s unchangeable heart.”

“He is the same now at 23 as he was when he was 10,” his mom explained at the time. “Exactly the same.”

The years of “Yo Soy Fiesta” (a phrase he uttered during an interview) were just beginning. He got shirtless photos taken with porn stars. He went out dancing while still recovering from a broken arm. The night of the Patriots’ last Super Bowl loss, he got plastered and took off his shirt while dancing at a club. When an SI writer asked why, Rob’s answer was, “Dude, it was the Patriots fans who got me drunk! What was I supposed to do, turn down the shots?”

It’s 2015 now, and Rob no longer lives in the party house. He loves and appreciates his mother, he frequently volunteers at local hospitals, invests most of his football earnings into tax-free municipal bonds, doesn’t go for expensive clothes or electronics (his two iPhones are both promotional freebies) and lives with Robert Goon in a crazy pad with a party bus outside.

On a Saturday night, after a party he was paid five figures to attend was a bust, Rob went home alone, and got a little philosophical with the SI writer who was profiling him for the magazine. “I like going out, meeting new people, having a good time,” he said. “I guess that’s why I’m all over the papers. I don’t have any girlfriends, no kids. Basically I work out two hours every single day, and then I have 12 hours to do whatever I want.”

Rob is now twenty-five, and may have been, in the words Joan Didion used to describe Joan Baez, “a personality before [he] was entirely a person.” While he’s never once seemed inauthentic, Gronk, the maddest one, that fabulous yellow roman candle, may bring to mind another quote, the one about lights that burn twice as bright.

“I got nothing to do,” Rob continued. “That’s why I hit up every charity event, why I hit up every party I’m invited to. If I’m just sitting at home, that’s not productive. That’s boring.”

To quote Joan Baez herself, “the easiest kind of relationship for me is with ten thousand people. The hardest is with one.”

***

Feature photo of Tom Brady © Greg M. Cooper, USA Today
Photo of Marshawn Lynch © Kurt Rogers, San Francisco Chronicle
Photo of Julian Edelman © Michael Dwyer, AP
Photo of Doug Baldwin © Elton Lugay, The FilAm
Photo of Rob Gronkowski © Martin Scholler, ESPN The Magazine


J. Ryan Stradal’s writing has also appeared in Hobart, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rattling Wall, Joyland, Trop, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, The Nervous Breakdown, and NFL.com, among other places. His first novel, KITCHENS OF THE GREAT MIDWEST, will be published by Viking in July 2015. Find him, if you must, at JRYANSTRADAL.COM or @jryanstradal on Twitter. More from this author →