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Living in the land of Gronk

PHOENIX – Rob Gronkowski finished high school in Pennsylvania. He went to college in Arizona. He’s made a home and a career for himself in New England. But “Gronk,” the pride of Williamsville, says he will always remain a Buffalo guy at heart. ¶ “Yeah, no doubt,” Gronkowski said Wednesday morning during a media session at the Patriots’ hotel. “I grew up in Buffalo. I believe that’s where my hard work and dedication definitely comes from, growing up in Buffalo. They’re hard workers there, hard-working scholars up in Buffalo. ¶ “I definitely feel it in snow,” he said. “When I’m in New England, everyone’s like, ‘Are you ready for the snow?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, this is nothing, buddy. I grew up in Buffalo. The snow is nothing.” ¶ Gronk was back in town early this month during the Patriots’ bye week. He went to 716, the Pegulas’ hot new restaurant at HarborCenter.

“I hadn’t been down there in awhile and I was pretty impressed,” he said. “Right outside the arena! It would be cool for the whole city to be on the rise with all the nice new buildings and have the atmosphere and culture back up to where it should be. They’re doing a great job.”

So while it’s difficult for Bills fans, we need to embrace Gronk as our own. Come on, how do you not love a guy who talks about the tough, hard-working Buffalo people and drops in a “scholar” reference? Who doesn’t have a soft spot for an athlete who agreed to be photographed with kittens for ESPN The Magazine?

Gronk is pure Buffalo. He would have fit in perfectly with the Jim Kelly bunch during the Super Bowl years. No one ever accused those guys of being angels. It’s part of the Buffalo persona: Tough, loyal, hard-working, fun-loving and a little bit crazy.

On a generally dull Media Day, who but Gronkowski would agree to read excerpts from “A Gronking to Remember,” an erotic romance novel which he inspired. He read a passage from Lacey Noonan’s novel that included “spike” and “butt cheeks” before bursting out laughing.

“It’s cool,” Gronk said. “You can laugh about it, but at the same time you can’t really get caught up in it because you’re here for a job and it’s to win football games. Being on this team, being with the head coach here and the quarterback we have keeps you humble. It keeps you hard-working.”

Gronkowski kept returning to that essential theme: Hard work. Sure, he loves his fun. He has his own party bus, which once belonged to a Long Island church but now goes by the name Sinners Bus. He has a friend drive and avoids the sort of public settings that used to get him plastered all over the Internet.

But five years into a career that could end in the Hall of Fame, it’s clear that Gronkowski doesn’t care to be stereotyped as the jock wildman. He was asked if some fans underestimate how seriously he takes football because he’s such a notorious fun-loving guy.

“I would say so,” he said. “I feel like they underestimate the hard work and dedication behind the scenes for everyone. Just going in the weight room when it’s your time to work out, the meetings behind the scenes, the practicing during the week. I feel like some people just look at it like you go out there on game day and play, but that’s not really the case.”

Gronkowski has a bit of the knucklehead in him. It’s a family trait. But he’s also one of the best tight ends in NFL history, and next to Tom Brady the most indispensable player on the Patriots.

The Pats are a vastly different team without him. Gronk had six surgeries that caused him to miss 17 games over the 2012 and 2013 seasons. The Pats reached the AFC title game both years, but lost without him. Three years ago, he played hurt in the Super Bowl and was a virtual non-factor with a bad ankle.

If Gronk had been healthy for his entire career, the Pats might have five Super Bowl wins. Last December, after tearing his ACL and MCL on a hit by Cleveland’s T.J. Ward, the 6-foot-6, 265-pound Gronkowski wondered if he would ever play again.

Gronk also suffered a minor concussion on the play. He was carted off the field. He cried while getting X-rays on his knee, while his father, Gordie Sr., and his trainer held his hand. “Is this it?” he asked. “Am I done?”

He was far from done. A month later, after the swelling had sufficiently subsided in his knee, he underwent surgery. Before long, Gronkowski was amazing doctors with his strength and speed of recovery. They saw what a worker and competitor he was, and how desperately he missed the game.

“When you get the game taken away from you just like that, in a snap of a second, you appreciate it so much more when you’re sitting at home watching your teammates play on TV. You just wish you were out there with the boys, working hard and grinding hard. You don’t take it for granted.”

Gronk was ready for the start of the 2014 season, though not back to the form that made him one of the most feared offensive weapons in the sport, a man who had set a record for touchdowns (17) and receiving yards (1,327) by a tight end in his second NFL season.

The Patriots got off to a 2-2 start, prompting mutters of dynastic decline. They had various issues, but the biggest problem was that Gronk wasn’t all the way back. Through four weeks, he had a modest 13 catches for 147 yards. As critics felt the dynasty ending, Gronk was finally feeling like himself.

“It was Week 5 coming into the Cincinnati game,” Gronkowski recalled. “I felt like I got a routine down through the first four weeks where I could practice hard, maintain my health and get my knee so it didn’t swell up on me. It clicked. I went out, played the most snaps I have all year and took it from there.”

The Pats crushed the Bengals, 43-17, and never looked back. In the first four games, they averaged 20 points and 298 yards a game. Over the next 11 weeks, with Gronk in top form, they averaged 34 points and 398 yards. Gronkowski had 69 catches for 977 yards and nine TDs over those 11 games.

You could make a good case for Gronk as the league MVP based on how much better the offense is when he’s healthy. The Seahawks, who have allowed the fewest passing yards in the NFL two years in a row, understand how important Gronk is to the Pats.

Asked who was the Pats’ best player, Seattle linebacker K.J. Wright said, “Gronkowski is. We know that wherever he is, most likely the ball is coming his way. So you have to have a real good eye on him and just make sure he doesn’t take over the game.”

Gronk was asked about the public venom toward New England. There’s no shortage of sports fans who delight in seeing the Patriots go down. It’s even more pronounced in the light of the Deflategate controversy.

“You laugh it off,” he said. “It’s part of the game. If you don’t have any haters, you’re not doing anything right. So this organization is doing a lot right.”

Yeah, like getting the ball in the hands of their tight end, who would love to make Sunday’s big game a true Gronking To Remember.

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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