Rob was not the only Gronkowski aboard the Pearl. The family vacations in a pack, like water buffalo. In descending order of age: Gordy, a.k.a. “Papa Gronk,” a.k.a. “The Creator”; Gordie Jr., who for some reason spells his name differently from his father and used to play minor league baseball; Chris, briefly an NFL fullback, now in the personal engraving industry. Not present are Dan, also a former NFL fullback, and Glenn, a college fullback hoping to be an NFL fullback.
Gronk family lore is rife with tales of fraternal debauchery: Fan favorites involve a suggestively lubed-up homemade Slip’N Slide and brother Gordie in a thong. As much as Gronk’s Party Ship represents an obvious business proposition—the brothers Gronk have also dreamed up a party bus and host a website dedicated to their collective beastliness—it also seemed like a massive nostalgia trip. During a question-and-answer session, somebody asked Rob to describe a typical family Christmas. “Let’s see…. I’m practicing with Bill Belichick,” he said wryly. “Nobody’s been together for the holidays for probably 10 years.” On the Pearl, the boys could get loaded and whale on one another like it was old times.
On Friday night, Charlie and I attend a standup comedy set by Saturday Night Live alum Finesse Mitchell. Rob and the rest of the Gronks are sitting front row. Chris is shirtless. Soon, Gordy will be too, flexing for the very sparse crowd. Somebody demands that Gordie Jr. and Chris arm-wrestle. Mitchell rewires his act to make fun of the family’s penchant for aggressive toplessness. It’s all in good, brainless fun until Mitchell is handed a pink alcoholic beverage by a tippler in the audience. He clearly doesn’t want to drink it. Chris yells, “Pretend it’s a 40!”—as in, a 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor. Oof. Winces. “What’s that supposed to mean?” Mitchell asks, raising an eyebrow, before coolly spinning it into a joke. “Black people ain’t drink 40s in years.”
Charlie reminded me earlier that Gronk is the latest in a long line of ethnic white athletes to capture the heart of the Boston sports fan. Pesky. Yaz. Bourque. Youk. Scal. Pedroia. New Englanders are a fairly white folk. Historically, so are many of their working-class heroes. Not to stray too far from the Dionysian ragbag you’re here to read about, but it’s not for nothing that I counted more black performers than I did guests aboard Gronk’s Party Ship.
The sociopolitical musing will end here, though, because Charlie and I made the mistake of paying a visit to the cigar room, which on top of being lame made us drowsy and caused us to fall asleep in our staterooms well before the midnight Flo Rida concert. By all accounts the show was a hoot. Video footage confirms that a particularly flamboyant Gronk owned the stage. I am sorry to have passed out watching badminton highlights on a small television in my cabin.
We are awoken at 8 a.m. on Saturday by an announcement from our captain that “tenders”—small boats—would be transporting us to a small Caribbean island owned by Norwegian Cruise Line. To regular passengers, this island is known as Great Stirrup Cay. To us, it is “Gronk’s Island.” Gronk’s Island, like Gronk’s Party Ship, promises alcohol and oppressively loud electronic dance music. On the tender we meet Rebecca, a 46-year-old hospitalist employed by Elliot Health System in Manchester, New Hampshire. Let’s just say she is not who we pictured when we pictured people willing to spend upward of $3,000 for a weekend with the Gronks. She is a widow who works 13-hour shifts at a city hospital. She also claims to enjoy partying. (“Manchvegas, baby!”) Unlike the other middle-aged solo guests we encounter—like hard-luck Rob from West Roxbury—Rebecca seems somehow overqualified for the trip.
We disembark from the tender and walk toward the part of the island where the Gronkowski family is said to be holding court. The smiling blond guy from the photo shoot once again hands us plastic cups full of alcohol. “I really couldn’t believe I danced with Gronk,” Rebecca tells us, reliving last night. “What I was doing was weird. I was just grinding up and down on him.” We stop to ask a guy in swim trunks if we’re heading in the right direction. He tells us he doesn’t know the way to his chair and stumbles away. Rebecca adds that she ate breakfast next to Gordy this morning and thanked him for “having Rob.”
Rebecca adores her team. “You have no idea how much I love my Patriots,” she says. “I go to every game. I have a Patriots watch. I have everything. I went to the Super Bowl out in Indianapolis.” But only Gronk could have credibly staged a Caribbean booze cruise. “I love Tom Brady,” she says. “But this wouldn’t work with him. Gisele would have complained that he was wasting water or something.” Tom and Gisele, she’s saying, are not fun people. Their diet restricts not only coffee, dairy, white flour, white sugar, and MSG, but also tomatoes, mushrooms, peppers, and eggplant. Tommy Touchdown isn’t the type to swig vodka from the bottle, much less while air-grinding next to Redfoo in a concert hall on a party boat.
NFL history boasts many talented, club-hopping athletes. They tend to self-destruct sooner (Johnny Manziel) or later (Lawrence Taylor). Bibi Jones, the porn star, once said she worried her friend Rob loved Vegas too much. But Gronk seems more or less responsible about his extracurricular behavior. He steadfastly refuses to use drugs and has never drifted into the DUI-and-domestic-disturbance zone that has plagued so many party rockers past. There’s a kind of tongue-wagging, all-American harmlessness to him. Gronk’s a frat guy, but he won’t roofie your drink. He’s Air Bud, except not a dog.