BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — Reporters waited for more than half an hour Thursday afternoon for Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski to show up for his interview session with the Super Bowl media.
As the appointed hour approached, they trained their cellphones at a corner doorway that led to the second floor concourse in the Mall of America, eagerly awaiting Gronk's arrival, as if he were some visiting monarch coming to address the disheveled masses.
Gronkowski had not taken part in the required interview sessions all week because he was in the NFL's concussion protocol. On Tuesday, at an event that wasn't governed by the protocol, Gronk had assured an ESPN reporter that he would play Sunday. But he wasn't officially cleared until Thursday afternoon. These media sessions can be intellectually taxing, after all.
He's fine, of course. During a mostly fawning 45-minute exchange with the media, Gronkowski assured everyone that he's fully recovered and excited to play in the Super Bowl against the Eagles on Sunday.
"I did everything," Gronk said. "I was cleared. So I'll be ready to roll in the game. I'll be full-go and ready to roll."
I can vouch for the fact that he's ready to roll on Sunday, because he used the expression "ready to roll" no fewer than a dozen times in 45 minutes Thursday.
But what the pride of Amherst wasn't ready to do was entertain any questions about his cheap shot against Bills rookie cornerback Tre'Davious White back on Dec. 3. When I asked Gronk if he could now understand what White had gone though after the hit in Buffalo, here was his bemused reply:
"Uh, no. I don't understand what that question is related to."
You hit Tre'Davious White and he got a concussion, I said.
"I'm just preparing for the Eagles," Gronkowski said.
Gronk took a vicious shot to the back of White's head while he was lying on the ground that day. It send White into the concussion protocol, though White recovered in time to play the next game. But Gronkowski was handed a one-game suspension from the league for the hit, and was lucky not to get more.
One would think that spending 10 days in the concussion protocol before a Super Bowl would give a man some perspective on what he had done to another NFL player. I wasn't asking Gronk for an apology, or badgering him to make him look bad in front of the national media.
But my Lord, would it have been so difficult for him to acknowledge a reasonable question, or to simply concede that he had gained a little appreciation for what White suffered when he went into the concussion protocol? Would that have made him seem weak, like less a tough guy?
He didn't understand "what the question was related to?" Seriously? Gronkowski chose to play dumb, which apparently comes easy for him. He went into Belichick drone-mode, where you dismiss any leading question by telling the world you're moving on to Cincinnati, or the Eagles, or whoever is the next opponent.
The rest of the media stood there like a bunch of mute, tittering accomplices, supporting the superstar in his notion that it was somehow out of bounds to ask about the White hit. The real reporters, the ones who weren't asking Gronk to compare hand size or taking selfies or asking him to speak Spanish, should have been ashamed.
At times like this, you understand how Bills fans can despise the Patriots so. They accept the fact that the Pats have Tom Brady and break their hearts twice a year. What they hate is how the Pats seem to be smug and above it all, how they're allowed to abide by a different standard because they win so much.
I didn't come looking to show up Gronk, a local kid who made good. I planned to find out how much he appreciates a chance to get back on the field. He's missed a lot of playoff time over the years. But the White question needed to be asked. It was Journalism 101.
The Pats have played 18 playoff games since drafting Gronk in 2010. Their three lowest-scoring playoff games in that time were two title games he missed with injury (2012 and 2013) and the Super Bowl loss to the Giants after the 2011 season, when he was far less than 100 percent. He was out for last year's epic Super Bowl win.
You could argue that if Gronkowski had been fully healthy for every postseason in his eight-year career, the Patriots could have eight Super Bowl titles now.
"You definitely appreciate your health as you get older," he said. "As a kid, being young in the league, you just always feel good. You always feel great. But obviously, there's an aging process. You feel that in your mid-20s, and you just appreciate any time you feel good. You appreciate your health and you know it's crucial. You know it's big."
Yeah, which is why the honorable thing would have been to take the White issue head-on and be a man about it. Gronk's answer was hugely disappointing. OK, he said he has no hard feelings toward Barry Church, whose hit gave him the concussion. And White did back off after saying Gronk tried to hurt him.
That doesn't mean it was OK to dismiss the fact that he concussed another player. He tossed out the tired cliche about how he "knew what he was signing up for" when he took up football.
Fans deserve better. The players union, which fights hard for a more effective policy on concussions, deserves better. Parents who worry about letting their kids play football for fear of concussions deserve better.
What they deserve is a little honesty. I've been around long enough to know that real journalism takes a beating at this event. I can live with struggling to get a question in for Tom Brady, or Roger Goodell, while a bunch of 12-year-old kids get to throw puffball questions at their heroes.
But when a player gets to treat an obvious and justified question like an attempt to spoil the party, I can't be silent. What Gronk did Thursday was weak and cowardly, just like the hit he laid on Tre'Davious White on Dec. 3.