- Ashley Fox
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The kid was gangly and a goof, and Donte Stallworth had no clue who he was or from where he came. He didn't know that the kid grew up in upstate New York and then spent a year in Pennsylvania, that he had four brothers who were athletes like him, that he played collegiate football at Arizona or that he had the talent to become the 42nd selection in the 2010 NFL draft.
All Stallworth knew, after working with the kid down in Miami for several weeks before the draft two years ago, was that the guy's motor never stopped and his work ethic was superb. Running routes. Running sprints. Whatever was asked, he did it with the tireless exuberance of someone who plays for the love of the game, and he did it all with a silly grin.
So Stallworth never paused during this Summer of Gronk, when Rob Gronkowski was busy doing what rich, famous, 23-year-olds do -- party, go on a reality TV show, pose essentially naked for a magazine cover and co-host "Access Hollywood Live." None of it mattered to Stallworth, who knows better than most how bad offseason choices can sometimes cost you your reputation and your career.
"I think it's good for him, and I think it's good for the league, as long as he controls it like he's done," Stallworth said on Friday after the Patriots' second practice of training camp. "The main thing about him that most people may not know is he works his butt off. I knew that before the crazy dude was even drafted."
There is little doubt after spending just one day at New England's training camp that the Summer of Gronk has ceded to the business of Patriots football. The foolishness is over. There will be no more dancing shirtless in clubs, at least not until the season is over. Fun is fun, and business is business. In Bill Belichick's world, the two do not mesh. Ever.
After proving to be the most prolific tight end in NFL history in 2011 -- he set league records with 1,327 receiving yards and 17 receiving touchdowns -- Gronkowski now must prove he did not let success or fame or riches affect his play. He must prove the Patriots weren't silly to extend his rookie contract -- with two years still remaining -- for an obscene six years and $54 million, a deal that could keep Gronkowski in New England until 2020.
In short, he must prove the past two seasons weren't a fluke.
Gronkowski must follow up the Summer of Gronk with the Season of Gronk. The bar has been set. All-Pro selection. Pro Bowl berth. Super Bowl run, including one playoff game with 10 receptions for 145 yards and three touchdowns. He had the most touchdown receptions in a season by any Patriot in history not named Randy Moss.
That was Year 2. What's next for Year 3?
It certainly appears as if Belichick was displeased by Gronkowski's visibility in the offseason. It was anti-Belichickian: a player other than Tom Brady allowed to have a life. In the two days since camp opened, Belichick has had very little to say about Gronkowski, although on Friday he heaped praise on rookie linebacker Dont'a Hightower, whom the Patriots selected in the first round, and was effusive about Stallworth, who at age 31 is fighting to earn a roster spot.
On Thursday, asked whether he had an issue with Gronkowski's offseason, Belichick replied: "I talk to our players, individually and collectively. I talk to them about a lot of things all the time. Any conversation that I have individually with a player, I keep that between myself and the player."
Belichick seemed to be answering a different question from the one that was asked. On Friday, he would not say much of anything about Gronkowski, and Gronkowski – typically upbeat and colorful -- was bland and on-message when meeting with reporters after practice.
Gronkowski would not look back, on his summer or the Super Bowl or the 2011 season. Asked whether anyone on staff had told him to tone it down -- as The Boston Globe reported Belichick did two weeks ago -- Gronkowski gave an answer that was like the rest he gave during the session:
"It is football time now," he said. "That's all I'm worried about is football, football, football and getting better on the field every day. All I can focus on is football. I love the game. That's my No. 1 passion."
Football. Football. Football.
So the Summer of Gronk is over?
"I'm just here to play football, baby," Gronkowski said.
But come on, wasn't there a highlight? A shirtless dance? A party?
"Yeah," Gronkowski said. "How hard I trained, how much I ran, how much I studied, everything like that."
That might sound crazy to some, but not to Stallworth. He has seen Gronkowski in the weight room early in the morning, how attentive he is in meetings and how precise he is in practice.
Stallworth also has seen how fame and fortune can wreck careers, and he doesn't see that happen to Gronkowski.
"I won't name names, but I've seen a few guys go the other way and forget what got them here, what got them all that stuff," Stallworth said. "[Gronkowski] likes all that stuff, but at the end of the day he works his butt off, and I can't say that enough…
"As long as he continues to keep that outside stuff outside of here, he's fine. As long as I've been here and even as long as I've known him, when it's time to work, he works. He's still that same guy. To see that hasn't changed at all, that's good."
Gronkowski flexed the Belichick rules this summer. He will have to play within them this season, and produce, or else the Summer of Gronk will have been a nightmare.