Glenn Gronkowski had lived through the experience three times over the years, watching in nervous anticipation as three older brothers (Dan, Chris, Rob) waited to see if they would be chosen in the NFL Draft.
One thing he’d learned is that you never know how it will turn out. And over the years, the Gronk family had come to believe that it was always the team that paid you no attention along the way that wound up picking you.
“Goose” also figured the final day of the draft would be long and excruciating. As a fullback, he was an undervalued commodity in the modern NFL. He didn’t have the gaudy stats or the measurables to go high.
So it wasn’t a total surprise when the seventh and final round moved along late Saturday afternoon and the last of the five Gronkowski boys still hadn’t heard his name called on the TV broadcast.
Then, as the world waited to see who the Titans would make “Mr. Irrelevant” with the last pick of the draft, the phone rang in the Gronkowski household in Amherst. Bills coach Rex Ryan was at the other end of the line.
Ryan wanted to sign him as an undrafted free agent and give him a chance to make his hometown NFL team.
“He called and said he wanted me,” Gronkowski said at a post-draft party at Amherst Pizza & Ale House. “He made it very clear he wanted me. A couple of teams had called earlier than that. I sat down with my agent and my family and decided to go to Buffalo.”
“It’s funny,” he said. “I didn’t talk to the Bills once this entire time -- not at the Senior Bowl, not at Combine, not on Pro Day, not one time leading up to the draft. It held true again. I ended up in Buffalo.”
It would have been nice to be drafted, to hear his name called. There’s a certain prestige involved. Your name is forever inscribed in the history of the draft. But there are benefits to being snubbed. Choice, to be specific.
“Halfway through the seventh round, we said it’s better to go free agent,” said Goose, who played at Kansas State. “Pick the best situation you can be in. So we thought this was the best situation I could be in. Right here, in my hometown, it could not be any better.”
Brother Chris, who played four years in the NFL, said he understood what his younger brother was going through Saturday. He went through it himself in 2010, when he went undrafted as a fullback and signed with the Cowboys as a free agent after the draft.
“It was almost like I was back there myself, waiting for the call,” Chris said. “It was pretty much the same situation. Sometimes it’s better, especially at his position.”
Still, things didn’t go quite to plan for the Gronkowskis. Gordy, the father, was eager to see the last of his five athletic sons become a pro (Gordy Jr. played pro baseball) get drafted. He let it be known that a party would ensue at Amherst Pizza & Ale House.
Someone had provided New Era caps from all 32 NFL teams, so there would be a hat from Goose’s new team to wear at the bar. A couple of beefy security guards were on hand, since older brother Rob, the superstar tight end from the Patriots, can inspire a rowdy scene in public establishments.
But after the seemingly interminable, six-hour final draft session, nothing happened. Two punters went in the seventh round. So did Rico Gathers, a basketball player from Baylor. The great-nephew of Alex Karras was picked.
That rarest events seemed about to occur -- a Gronkowski party that fell flat. But within minutes of the final pick, owner John Bona received word from Gordy Gronkowski that the celebration was back on.
It wound up an even greater reason to party. Finally, a Gronkowski was on the hometown Bills. Glenn has a tough road ahead, making an NFL roster as an undrafted free agent.
But there’s a long history of undrafted guys making good, including Kurt Warner, Priest Holmes, Willie Wood, Wes Welker and Larry Little. Fred Jackson and London Fletcher, a couple of former Bills, weren’t drafted.
Gronkowski doesn’t have the sheer ability of those players, but he has the Gronk family’s indomitable will and work ethic.
They have a way of rising above their perceived limitations and defying the doubts of outsiders.
“If anything, he’s going to be the toughest one of all,” Gordy Sr. said with a smile. “The beating the kid used to take with four older brothers! What really impressed me was how he held his own at the Senior Bowl and showed the country he can play at this level.”
Goose said he’ll do whatever it takes to make the Bills. He’ll play fullback, H-back, tight end, special teams, anything they ask of him.
“It’s a dream come true,” he said. “I was a Bills fan growing up. My dad took me to just about every home game. To be in an organization like that and play for Rex Ryan, it’s going to be fun.”
If he plays a regular-season game for the Bills, the Gronkowskis will join the Browners as the only family in the modern NFL to have four brothers play in the league. It will also create a dilemma when the Bills play against Rob and the Patriots twice a year.
“We’ll definitely be talking smack before every game,” Goose said.
“We weren’t allowed to wear Bills jerseys the last five or six years,” Chris said, “so at least I can throw one back on like the old days.”
“It’s so surreal what’s happening right now,” Gordy Sr. said. “I know he didn’t get drafted today, but at the end of the way it all worked out for the best.”
After the discouraging wait, there was cause to celebrate after all. And the party was just beginning. Rob was due to show up at the bar any moment.