- Jackie MacMullan, ESPNBoston.com columnist
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- There was nothing subtle about the hit. It was designed to upend, undercut, undermine, undo. When Kansas City linebacker Derrick Johnson hurtled himself at Rob Gronkowski's hip and knees, he intended to negate the seemingly indestructible tight end -- or, at the very least, slow him down.
"I was trying to cut him, get him out of bounds," Johnson explained. "I was trying to stop a score."
Good luck with that.
Johnson drilled Gronkowski just low enough to topple the rugged tight end head over heels, a near 360-degree flip, before Gronkowski was slammed to the turf helmet first, his massive body contorted in a way that certainly wasn't recommended -- or natural. Another quarter of an inch to the left and he might have broken his neck.
"Yeah, but -- knock on wood -- he's a pretty stout guy," teammate Julian Edelman said.
"Young guys like him bounce right back up," Patriots veteran Brian Waters said. "If it was me, it probably would have been over."
Gronkowski was in the end zone, naturally, when all this transpired. Tom Brady's favorite receiver has all but erected his own Occupy Gronk tent back there since he arrived as a rookie a season and a half ago and made a habit of planting himself where the rewards are sweetest.
Gronkowski held onto the ball after the Johnson hit but was momentarily shaken. He even stayed down for a split second before he staggered to his feet and provided the raucous Foxborough crowd with exactly what it craved: a trademark emphatic spike. (One, presumably, that this time won't result in a fine.)
That culminated yet another big Gronk play, a 19-yard touchdown reception that pushed New England's lead to 17-3 early in the third quarter, while adding yet another footnote to his growing legacy as the biggest, baddest (and goofiest?) tight end in the league.
By the time the Patriots had put the finishing touches on this 34-3 thrashing of the Kansas City Chiefs, Gronkowski had hauled in two touchdowns, bringing his total to 20 TDs in his first 26 career games, the most of any tight end in NFL history. The previous record was held by a guy by the name of Ditka, who needed 31 games to get his 20th.
In his early years with da Bears, Mike Ditka embodied their toughness, grit and excellence. Gronkowski, who erased Ditka's 48-year-old record with the aforementioned TD as well as an athletic 52-yard score in the opening quarter, has shown some mettle of his own, both as a receiver and a blocker.
He made light of his near-serious injury afterward, reporting that the trainers checked him for concussion symptoms. "Yeah, they kept asking me, and I started throwing out my own math problems," Gronkowski said.
"I was like, 'Dude, I can count to 10,' and I started counting to 10," he said. "That's pretty easy though, so they kept letting me play."
Gronkowski has evolved into a folk hero in New England, a favorite of fans who prefer smashmouth, physical football and don't mind a little racy behavior now and again from a mostly vanilla team.
Gronkowski raised eyebrows -- and increased his Twitter hits -- in the wake of a bye week trip to Arizona, where he hung out with porn star Bibi Jones. Showing up shirtless on the Internet with a stripper named Bibi, who is wearing your authentic NFL No. 87 jersey, is bound to get you some undivided attention from a decidedly different BB. When Bill Belichick tapes a little message on your locker that reads, "See me," you better have a reasonable explanation for your exploits.
The big fella didn't.
Upon his return to Foxborough, a contrite Gronkowski apologized to the team and owner Robert Kraft. Then the big lug strapped on his helmet and resumed shredding defenses. He is a nightmare for defensive backs, whom he dusts off like fleas. He's a headache for linebackers, who, when they pursue him, are surprised to discover he's quicker than he looks.
"Obviously he did a great job [tonight]," Johnson conceded. "You have such a small margin for error when you've got guys like him and Tom Brady on the field."
The chemistry between Gronkowski and Brady is undeniable. On the first TD, the 52-yard play, the Patriots ran a play action and the Chiefs were blitzing off Brady's left side. Gronkowski slipped behind them, Brady delivered the ball and, as the quarterback explained, "Rob did the rest. He's tough to bring down. He runs hard. They had a chance to tackle him around the 8-, 9-yard line, but he broke a tackle and walked in."
The numbers between the tight end and the QB are superlative. According to Erik Frenz of PatsPropaganda, last season Brady completed 34 of 59 passes intended for Gronkowski for 546 yards, 10 touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 139.5.
The numbers are similar this season. No wonder Brady targets Gronkowski so frequently; he has excellent hands, has a knack for being at the right place at the right moment, and he uses his size to leverage his opportunities at reaching the end zone. It's rare that Brady throws a bad ball when he's looking for No. 87.
Better teams with more physical defenses will double Gronkowski as the Patriots approach the red zone. Everyone has learned giving Gronk a chance at one-on-one coverage near the goal line is folly. No matter. He's happy to block some mammoth defensive menace instead, as he did in helping Shane Vereen secure his first career NFL touchdown in the final minutes of the game.
"The guy's a beast," Edelman declared.
The beast likely will be sore when the adrenaline fades and the effects of his tumble settle into his neck, head and shoulders.
In the meantime, Gronkowski will count his blessings that he lives for another day, that he will continue his charmed tight end life alongside Brady, that he will build on the resume that is expanding at warp speed.
"Some days I wake up, I talk to Dane [Fletcher], my roommate, and we're like, 'Dude, we're in the NFL,"' Gronkowski confessed.
He is only 22, with a world of football ahead of him. A quarter inch to the left, and that all could have changed. Instead, the hit will be forgotten tomorrow, while the tight end that absorbed it continues to make sure he's remembered forever in the NFL record book.
Jackie MacMullan is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.
Record-setting tight end and emerging folk hero, Rob Gronkowski does it again.