Gronk’s Island is surrounded on all sides by water, which makes it the perfect place to try to score interviews with family members and pseudo-celebs. First up is 56-year-old Gordy, firmly stationed at the flip-cup table. He’s wearing wraparound shades and a hot-pink tank top that reads “Black Out and Party On.” I find it difficult to discuss much else besides flip cup.
Gordy: “I’m the master.”
Me: “How long you been playing?”
Gordy: “Oh, forever.”
Me: Desperate, flailing small talk about how I thought flip cup was actually a newfangled sport.
I conclude with something garbled about how I’m glad he’s “teaching his boys well” and get out of there. Next I seek out Gronk himself. Earlier on he had declared that selfie time was over, so I decided not to bother him with an actual interview request. Instead I follow him and a member of the Hype Crew into a public restroom and eavesdrop. Gronk locks himself in a stall while his buddy pees at a urinal.
Buddy: “Yo, Rob, I’m playing in the flip-cup tournament. Are you nice or no?”
Gronk: “Ya, dude. We’re gonna play winner.”
Buddy: “Oh, okay. Me, you, and Glenn.”
Gronk: “You mean Chris.”
I wash my hands for an unnaturally long period of time and plot my next move while waiting for Gronk to empty his bladder. It turns out my next move is to tell Gronk “it was an honor” to share the bathroom with him. He sort of recoils and says, “No problem.”
From there I continue my descent into shameful, obsequious fan behavior, following Gronk and several members of the Hype Crew to a man-made “lagoon,” where I’ll watch them swim to a little island of sand and celebrate their arrival like they’ve taken Iwo Jima. As they swim back I spiral deeper into my paparazzo shame chamber and position myself on the beach like a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit photographer, splayed out and clicking madly from low angles. The only decent shot I get is of a woman face-planting into the surf as she tries to keep up with the boys.
My saving grace is, of all people, Chris Gronkowski, who was not included on his brother’s lagoon swim, and seems to be dealing with some anxieties of his own. I ask him what he does for a living.
Chris: “I own my own business. I work in Dallas. I work at home with my wife.”
Me: “What’s your business?”
Chris: “We do personalized engravings.”
Me: “Oh, word! That’s an interesting business.”
Chris: “Yeah, it’s weird. I played in the NFL four years since she started it. I was like, ‘Hell no! Never doing that! I’m a fucking beast—I’m not doing some wedding shit.’ Then I came back and I was like, ‘Aw, sweet.’”
Eventually, Chris and I enter a line to reboard our tender, at which point he asks me if I think he could be a nipple model. His wife herds him away, and I find myself standing next to a tall black guy with dreads who’s wearing a Golden State Warriors jersey. I do a Google Image search on my phone for “Waka Flocka Flame.” Bingo. I introduce myself as a reporter and begin to ask him something.
“Nobody talk to this guy! He’s a blogger!” Waka yells to everyone boarding the tender, which includes the Gronkowski family. Nobody seems to hear, and I tell him, for good measure, that I’m not technically a “blogger.” On the ride back, the Gronkowski family plays a game that consists of chanting the word “Fluffernutter”—our unofficial state sandwich—in unison until we reach the Pearl.
The celebrity-cruise-ship story has become a journalistic trope. Often the piece is written by the graduate of a fancy East Coast school who would never in a million years deign to book a room on a party boat were he not fully comped and on assignment. The writer may present himself as sympathetic and open-minded, but beneath the prose, you get the feeling he probably thinks cruises represent a special kind of Middle American hell. The only way for him to stay cheerful is to cast the experience in an absurd light. For example: Instead of lingering on the degenerate behavior taking place on the Pearl’s sixth-floor casino, I could relate the amusing fact that Mr. Flocka Flame and I played 3 a.m. blackjack at the same lame-o $6 table, where he confided that he picked his nom de plume because he enjoys the Muppets character Fozzie Bear, who says “Waka Waka.”
No surprise, then, that there were (at least) four other journalists on board: Two from the Globe, one from ESPN, and one from SB Nation. They looked bemused, a little contemptuous, and not at all ready to Party Rock. (Hence our fedoras: camouflage.) In fact, three years ago, a magazine published an article much like this one about Kid Rock’s own party cruise, which took place, yes indeed, on the Norwegian Pearl. And thus far, the NCL experience mostly lived up to expectations. There was a cheesy piano-lounge crooner, and an abundance of Asian restaurants, and very many New England Patriots fans from Greater Boston. Any surprising revelations about the Gronkowskis—or, for that matter, the soul-crushing ennui of the North American vacationer—seemed too much to hope for.
On Sunday, though, as we bob home toward south Florida, the unexpected takes place. It’s late in the afternoon and the Gronk brothers and their Creator are participating in an audience Q & A. The questions are prescreened and mostly harmless, and initially don’t yield any noteworthy revelations.
Eventually, an older woman walks up to the microphone and asks Gronk to name one wish he would like to come true. Mojo Rawley, Gronk’s wrestler friend, predictably yells, “make out with you” from the balcony. But Rob takes the question seriously. “If I had one wish to come true.” He pauses. “For my body to wake up every day and feel fresh and…have no pain.” A second of stunned silence is followed by loud, emotive applause, like the kind bestowed upon members of the armed services.
A few minutes later, another woman asks each member of the family to name the biggest misconception about them. Chris immediately blurts, “We’re not that stupid, okay?” Rob stands up from his stool to echo his brother. “I would definitely say—I’m not lying—people will definitely come up to me and say, ‘You idiot, you’re stupid.’ And I’m like, ‘Yo, I will knock you motherfucker out.’” Rob turns defiant as the audience begins to cheer. “I always know what I’m doing. I know who I am. I know who I got around me.”
Maybe it was because his fans were asking the questions, or because Belichick wasn’t around. Or maybe it was because he was too hungover to care. But Gronk’s answers felt unusually raw. In the most unlikely of settings, we were witnessing a degree of candor and vulnerability rarely seen from an athlete of Gronkowski’s stature. I found it moving.
Then, in an instant, it was back to the originally scheduled brogramming: Gronk “bench-pressed” four women. He said his former teammate Steven Jackson had the “biggest piece” he’d ever seen. He confided that he liked to be snuggled and have his arms tickled.
Toward the end of the session, a young veteran from Kentucky kneeled on the carpeted floor of the Stardust Theater and asked his female companion to marry him. She said yes, the Hype Crew beckoned them to make out, and the groom-to-be asked Gronk to sanctify their union.
Gronk paused, and then offered his blessing. “One more excuse to party.”