Get Gronk’d!

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Illustration by Kagan McLeod

It’s 2:58 a.m. Gronk’s Party Ship is docked in a Bahamian port of call. I’m catching the tail end of a musical performance on the fifth deck of the ocean liner with my wing-person designate, a college friend we’ll call Charlie. Waka Flocka Flame, the rapper, is funneling distilled liquor down peoples’ throats. Redfoo, a performer of uncategorizable genre, formerly of three-hit wonder LMFAO, parades around in zebra-stripe undies. Mojo Rawley, a semiprofessional WWE grunt, makes love to the air with an inflatable palm tree. Audience members have begun crawling up onto the stage, zombielike, past indifferent security guys. In the thick of it is our dazed ringmaster, Rob Gronkowski, swigging Grey Goose and, I guess, twerking.

Drink handy, I’m mostly enjoying myself. But Charlie is disturbed by the spectacle. “Gronk should get off the stage,” he says. “These other guys are clowns. He’s the greatest to play his position ever.”

It’s a fair point. Why is probable future Hall of Famer Rob Gronkowski sharing oxygen with these C-listers? At one point Gronk loses his balance and falls down. He was fine, but imagine if he hadn’t been. Gronkowski Suffers Career-Ending Injury After Slipping on Puddle of Tequila Spilled by Redfoo.

I assumed that once he was on board, Gronk might try to avoid such a calamity and recede to the background. It seemed more plausible that his father and two of his brothers—also aboard the Gronk’s Party Ship maiden voyage—would do the public relations work while the star tended to his failing knees in a secret whirlpool. Meanwhile, thousands of Gronk-starved guests would wander the boat listlessly, searching in vain for their beloved Polish-American tight end.

Not so! Rob Gronkowski was admirably present, drinking steadily and gyrating to much music. Having intentionally neglected to research the FAQs of celebrity cruisedom—research didn’t seem to be in the spirit of the SS Gronkowski—it slipped my attention that celebrities usually fraternize with fans on their own cruises. Besides, Gronk had a brand to cultivate. What is Gronk’s brand? Gronk’s brand is frat-row joie de vivre. Gronk’s brand is posing shirtless for a magazine spread while draped in kittens. Gronk’s brand is humping a duck boat during the Super Bowl victory parade while wearing a Minions hat.

Gronkowski claims in his 2015 memoir, It’s Good to Be Gronk, that he hoards his football salary and lives entirely off endorsements and appearances. A Miami-Nassau-Miami party cruise represented his most intuitive marketing opportunity yet. He could do what he seems to do anyway—remove his shirt and pound shots with his brothers—while building brand equity. Meanwhile, paying customers would get the chance not only to meet the great specimen, but also to channel his very essence.

From the promotional literature:

It’s time to PARTY, it’s time to ROCK, but more importantly, it’s time to get GRONK’D! Rob Gronkowski and his family want you to grab your sunnies, your swimsuits, your babes and your bros for one hell of a shindig sailing down the coast.… If this doesn’t sound Gronk’d enough for you, then you’re not ready to party with the big dogs.

A long weekend aboard Gronk’s Party Ship also struck me as a great opportunity. Here, hundreds of nautical miles from Coach Belichick and the rest of the Patriots’ PR apparatus, I might catch Gronk unguarded and in his element. Factor in the bros, the Massholes, the mysterious solo travelers, Redfoo—and the ground was fertile for a little drive-by pop sociology.

The ground was also fertile for drinking three days’ worth of Bud Light Lime and making the occasional note on my iPhone. For grabbing my swimsuit and partying with the big dogs. For getting Gronk’d.

 

The party-boat company running the Gronk cruise, an Atlanta outfit named Sixthman, encouraged people to travel en masse. I invite Charlie, a Patriots fan with man-of-the-people tendencies I thought would serve us well. We meet on a Friday morning in February at Miami International, make a pit stop in South Beach to buy obnoxious straw fedoras, then journey on to the Port of Miami.

Our ride is a 12-deck, 965-foot hulk of a skiff named the Norwegian Pearl. She was built in Germany 10 years ago and “christened” at the Port of Miami by her “godmother,” Rosie O’Donnell—apparently a longtime friend of Norwegian Cruise Line. The Pearl’s claims to fame include hosting the band Kiss five separate times, as well as causing a power outage that affected the entire European continent while passing through the Ems River in Germany in 2006.

After taking some useless wide-angle photos of the boat, we enter a kind of holding pen where our bags are scanned and tickets checked. Immediately, something feels off. I spot a handful of 87 and 12 jerseys, but mostly I see people for whom a Gronk cruise seems wildly inappropriate: toddlers, the elderly, couples in love. I walk up to two senior ladies and genially ask if they are “ready to Gronk?” I’m met with a friendly but uncomprehending look. “What’s a Gronk?” one of them asks back.

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Captain Rob moves the crowd on Gronk’s Island with two turntables and a microphone. / Photograph by Simon van Zuylen-Wood

I rush over to a security person to see if we’re in the right place. “The Pat-riots guy?” he says. He pronounces “Pat” like “Pat the Bunny.” Turns out we are. But so are the toddlers and the elderly. The embarrassing truth is that the Gronk ship was underbooked. Out of the 2,400 tickets Sixthman tried to sell, roughly 700 were bought. Norwegian Cruise Line then sold the remaining rooms to unsuspecting cruisers. (I heard rumors that ESPN later ran a segment called “Gronk Ruined My Vacation.” I couldn’t find the clip but that sounds about right.) “The Gronks aren’t going to make any money off this,” says a Sixthman mole I met on the boat. “It sold horribly. It was a massive failure.”

A Sixthman PR person declined to confirm or deny any ticket-sales figures, while Gronk’s public relations man, Jerry Shandrew, declined to comment on whether the Patriots star made or lost money. Shandrew, though, did make the technically true point that “the ship was sold out,” followed by the more dubious point that “everybody had a good time.”

What the Gronk cruisers lack in numbers they make up for in feverish devotion. At the port we meet Rob from West Roxbury, a solo-traveling middle-aged guy with a buzz cut and aviators, who confides to everyone within earshot that he has blown his last nickel on the trip. “I don’t even have a job,” he says. “I shouldn’t be doing this. What a way to go out.” He seemed at first to be under the influence of something powerful but was, in fact, just obsessed with Gronkowski. He spent the weekend wearing Day-Glo spandex and a drawstring backpack full of limited-edition “Gronk Flakes” cereal.

Charlie and I board the vessel, drop our bags off in our sad, windowless stateroom, and park ourselves at a bar located in a central area called the Atrium. Classiness-wise, the Norwegian Pearl falls somewhere between a honking Carnival-style shit show and one of those smooth Viking River Cruises boats they advertise before Downton Abbey. On the one hand, the Pearl features 13 separate watering holes, a Twin River–quality casino, and a louche club/bowling alley. On the other hand, guests can choose from several white-tablecloth restaurants and attend chapel the next morning. At the Atrium bar a similar dichotomy is at work. Older couples sip white wine and stare at a reeflike Dale Chihuly sculpture while Charlie tries to talk me into buying us all-you-can-drink booze packages.

He does the math: Three days of drinking at $59 per day + 18 percent gratuity and a “beverage service charge” equals unlimited wine and beer products for $209. At roughly $9 for each à la carte Bud Light Lime, the deal becomes worthwhile only if you can slug more than 23 green aluminum bottles of flavored beer over the course of 65 hours at sea. Charlie points out I’ve consumed two BLLs since boarding the Pearl and tells me at my current rate I’m just throwing dollar bills into the Atlantic Ocean. We buy the packages.

The plan is to sit at the Atrium bar until the first piece of official programming, a 5:45 p.m. photo shoot with Gronk. We make friends. There is Andrew, a stocky golf-playing Connecticut transplant who lives in Fort Lauderdale and seems to subsist on mimosas and bloodys, no matter the time of day. There is Paul from Davis Square, who wears a Julian Edelman jersey and blares air-horn noises at people using an app on his phone. There is Jodi/Jodie/Jody, an innocent non-Gronker who didn’t realize what she’d signed up for and now finds herself trapped on a party boat with her French husband and horrified French in-laws.

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Rapper Waka Flocka Flame attends to a thirsty partygoer. / Boston Globe/Getty Images

As we kill time, Andrew clues us into some of the Norwegian Pearl’s unfortunate history. A few months ago during an EDM cruise, a woman fell overboard and died. Concerts were canceled; the ship sailed back to Miami. Further research revealed that three years earlier—also aboard the Pearl—a woman died on a 311 cruise and was stashed inside an onboard morgue until debarkation. The Gronk Cruise may be less popular than other celebrity cruises, but at least no one died.

At 5:30 p.m. we ascend to a 13th-floor lounge for the photo op, where a massive queue has formed. At the door a smiling blond man hands us each a plastic shot glass filled with a cloudy tequila-and-something cocktail. Behind us in line is a group of four New England women whose accents carom off the walls of the ship, foretelling their presence wherever they go. And they go everywhere. One member will play Family Feud against the Gronks. Another will play flip cup against the Gronks. Still another will ask Gronk during a Q & A session to choose among Jennifer Lawrence, Mila Kunis, and Kate Upton in the age-old parlor game: “Fuck, Marry, Kill?” Gronk’s persistently drunken entourage—the “Hype Crew”—answers for him: “Bang ’em all!”

Pauline, the matriarch, manages a radio station in Salem. Her daughter, Madison, works in Foxboro for the Kraft family. There is also Jennifer, a cousin, and Mel, a friend. I ask them how they ended up here.

Jennifer: “I saw it and jokingly tagged them the minute I saw it on Facebook.”

Pauline: “Gronk, I would have to say, is my favorite player. Because I like the teddy-bear, party-but-nice persona that he has.”

Jennifer: “He’s not gross.”

Pauline: “My joke is: He’s a big redwood that I’d love to climb. But I can’t say that because I’m old enough to be his mother. But I give my daughter permission to say that.”

Madison: “I would climb the redwood.”

Speaking of redwood-climbing, Gronk was conspicuously lacking in female companionship during the cruise. Charlie brought this up several times. Last year Gronk was said to be dating former Patriots cheerleader Camille Kostek. Before that, he was “linked” to an adult-film professional named Bibi Jones. It’s unclear what went down, but she knew him well enough to disclose in a 2013 interview that “he’s obsessed with the music group LMFAO.… He is still constantly doing the Party Rock.” In any case, bedroom Gronk is perhaps best known for sexual exploits that never occurred, thanks to fan-fiction author Lacey Noonan’s novels A Gronking to Remember and A Gronking to Remember 2: Chad Goes Deep in the Neutral Zone.

Eventually we reach the threshold to a makeshift photo studio. Visible to us is the massive rectangular prism that is Gronk’s silhouette. The moment has arrived: Gronk, dressed in aquamarine tones, is wider than the two of us put together. It doesn’t help us on the tough-guy front that I’m wearing a Hawaiian shirt and that Charlie refuses to remove his fedora. Impressively, despite posing for 602 of these, Gronk never stops grinning. After the shoot, Charlie tells Gronk he knows a high school classmate of his. Gronk nods in recognition and tells him to relay the message that he “destroys” him at hockey. That’s the most one-on-one contact I’ll get until we meet again the next day in a public restroom on a place called “Gronk’s Island.”

On the way back to our stateroom we run into the uncomprehending elderly woman from the port. She tells me she’s since learned what a “Gronk” is. We make tentative plans to play bingo.

 

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Never shy, Gronk keeps the party going with a game of Family Feud. / Photograph via Boston Globe/Getty Images

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.

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An onboard marriage proposal was “one more excuse to party,” Gronk said. / Photograph by Simon van Zuylen-Wood

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.”


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Source URL: https://www.bostonmagazine.com/arts-entertainment/2016/05/01/gronk-party-ship-cruise/