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Adrift on the S.S. Gronk, where nothing bad can ever happen

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I’d like you to imagine something for a moment. I’d like you to imagine hundreds of people in matching zebra-stripe Zubaz headbands. I’d like you to imagine them on a tiny island in the Bahamas — a glorified sandbar, really — that hosts little beyond lizards, crabs, coconuts, and Bud Light, 50 miles from the next significant land mass. I’d like you to imagine them tanning and dancing and twerking and cradling bottles of Fireball, and at their center, surrounded by two brothers, a father, and an ever-adjusting wall of cameras straining to get a selfie with him: Rob Gronkowski, All-Pro New England Patriots tight end and designated party cruise captain.

These days, it often seems that Gronk, self-appointed party king of the NFL, is everywhere. He is in ads for the app Mobile Strike, for Nike, for JetBlue, for Madden, for Dunkin’ Donuts, for (of course) Zubaz. He is nude on the cover of ESPN the Magazine’s Body Issue, with a beer bong in the Entourage movie. He has his own brand of hot sauce. His own party bus.

So when the Atlanta-based event company Sixthman announced that Gronk would be hosting a cruise to the Caribbean two weeks after Super Bowl 50, no one was really surprised. It’s so perfectly Gronk, after all, so totally in line with the image he has come to embody that it’s almost as if it were dreamt up by a moony sports columnist.

It was.

Last year, Gronk released his autobiography, which was co-written by Jason Rosenhaus, the brother of his agent, Drew Rosenhaus. It’s Good To Be Gronk detailed, among other things: building an indoor slip and slide with his brothers and finding a turd of unknown provenance in a bag of potato chips.

"From day one," Gronk-slash-Rosenhaus writes, "all I ever wanted to do was have fun with my brothers."

That book features a quote from the New York Post at the very top of the book jacket in bolded letters, which reads, "This 25-year-old is one of the best tight ends the game has ever seen. And off the field, he’s unabashedly Gronk — the cruise director of the NFL."

I imagine Gronk reading this, smiling, and then thinking, Hey, wait, what if…?

Riffraff

For all its buzz, the Gronk Cruise didn’t go exactly as planned. Sixthman had trouble selling tickets, which started at $700, so the Norwegian Pearl — a Norwegian Cruise Lines vessel rechristened Gronk’s Party Ship for the weekend — was opened up to the general public. The Pearl has capacity for 2,300 passengers; just 700 of those leaving the Port of Miami were there for Gronk. The remainder booked a standard four-day cruise from Miami to the Bahamas, some paying as little as $200 a head for the privilege.

A Norwegian Pearl passenger passes through Señor Frog’s in Nassau, Bahamas.

So on Feb. 19, 2016, we set sail from Miami at full capacity, accompanied by a dozen DJs, three Gronkowski brothers, at least two inflatable zebras, and an incalculable number of Solo cups, bound first for a private island (renamed, naturally, Gronk’s Island) and then for Nassau.

But here’s the thing: Norwegian didn’t tell the people booking the normal cruise that their ship would also host the Gronk Cruise. The first sign that something was seriously amiss came at the port, where an older couple dressed head to toe in purple and waiting to go through security stopped to look around as the woman gasped, "A football player?"

By the first morning, many of the regular cruise passengers had had enough. At the front desk, a duo from Saratoga lined up to complain. This was their platinum cruise — the highest honor in Norwegian’s rewards program, the result of somewhere north of 50 cruises — and they carried laminated key cards from past trips on lanyards around their necks. But they would never have booked this trip had they known it was the Gronk Cruise. They were saying the word "riffraff" over and over.

"They were throwing cigars onto our balcony last night," the man started.

"Which aren’t even allowed on board," his wife added. Riffraff.

But what can you do once you’re on Gronk’s Party Ship?

* * *

Everywhere Rob Gronkowski goes, he is followed: by people, by coos, by outstretched Sharpies, by raised iPhones, by calls of Raaahhhhhb! Raahhb, ovah heah! The cruise afforded an almost astonishing level of access to Gronk, his entourage, and the musicians booked to entertain the guests till 4 or 5 each morning: Waka Flocka Flame, Flo Rida, LMFAO’s Redfoo, and others. The VIPs were for the most part siloed in a section of suites on the ship’s top level, but they regularly strolled down the halls of the ship, popping up in elevators and outside the ship’s 13 restaurants and 16 bars. If you went on the Gronk Cruise with the explicit goal of talking to, requesting the signature of, or, as seemed to be the motivation of more than a few passengers, simply touching them, you could pretty much make it happen.

Rob Gronkowski spikes a ball into the crowd.

As part of the Gronk’s Party Ship package, each passenger was guaranteed an Exclusive Photo Op with Gronk. I spent most of the wait for mine stroking the fuzzy anti-seasickness patch behind my ear and wondering what would happen if I threw up on Rob Gronkowski.

A fact about me: I happen to come from a long line of sailors who lived long enough to produce heirs and then promptly died at sea. John McNear after John McNear was raised in Maine, wed, produced another John McNear, and then, having ensured the future of the bloodline, sailed straight into the Atlantic, never to be heard from again. The curse was finally broken when a John McNear gave up and decided to head to California in search of gold. He found none but remained landborne, which was all well and good for generations until Rob Gronkowski planned a cruise.

The ocean is my hell. Put me in a vessel, add waves, and misery ensues. As part of my seasickness preparation before the cruise, I spent a lot of time researching the optimal location on the boat: on the lowest decks, as close to the center of the ship as possible. The photoshoot took place on the top deck at the very front of the ship, i.e. the most turbulent place on the boat, and just so happened to occur during the one time the Pearl saw anything like rough seas. People grasped at the tequila shots being passed around and stumbled, bumping into furniture as the boat rolled. I began to sweat.

If I threw up on him, would I be punished? If so, how? The guys in line behind me assured me that there was definitely a jail on board, and they seemed like they would know — the day before, one of them was briefly detained in the Miami Airport’s jail for reasons neither seemed very keen on discussing. "He was released into my custody," said the non-detained one, six or seven times.

In the end, miraculously, I did not throw up on Gronk, and I was handed, along with everyone else, a complimentary pair of Zubaz shorts and matching fluorescent headband. Gronk spent the two-hour photo session gamely following the lead of each set of guests: flexing when people flexed, looking shocked as two girls kissed him on either cheek, letting people pull up his shirt and touch his horrifyingly well-defined abs. By the time I was called up, near the end of the session, he seemed bewildered, and very much like someone who has been asked to politely greet strangers for multiple hours as flashbulbs went off every 10 seconds. On the way out of the photoshoot, several women bragged about grabbing Gronk’s butt during their photos. I staggered out to the deck for fresh air, where a woman in a pink rhinestone Gronkowski shirt was thrusting to "Hollaback Girl," piña colada in hand.

The Norwegian Pearl.

The Brothers Gronkowski

The Pearl set sail with just three of five gigantic Gronkowski brothers. Glenn, the youngest brother, announced in January that he would forgo his senior year as fullback at Kansas State to declare for the NFL draft; while his brothers were at sea, he was back in Florida training for the combine. Dan, the second-oldest, had been planning for the cruise for a long time: he and his wife, Brittany, timed her pregnancy around it. She’s not due till June and was ready to set sail till Zika happened. Then it was just going to be Dan, but — wouldn’t you know it — the damn thing can be transmitted sexually, so Dan, Brittany, and the intact cerebellum of the world’s next Gronkowski stayed back in upstate New York.

So it came down to Rob, Gordie Jr., Chris, and their father, Gordon Sr., alias "The Creator," alias "Papa Gronk," alias "Big G," a former offensive guard at Syracuse who went on to raise a small army of boys in Buffalo. Those boys were: drafted by the Angels (Gordie Jr., in 2006, the lone Gronkowski not to take up football), drafted by the Lions (Dan, 2009), picked up by the Cowboys (Chris, 2010), and drafted by the Patriots (Rob, 2010). If things go well — which is to say, if they go as they are meant to — Glenn will make five-for-five, a clean sweep of this generation’s professional athleticism, a quintuplet of gigantic, buoyant, Polish-American boys barreling across yards and yards of our nation’s finest fields.

Big G is pretty pleased.

Gordon Gronkowski Sr. dances on Gronk’s Island.

He runs an athletic equipment company out of a Buffalo suburb these days, filling homes and gyms and homes with gyms, like Big G’s, with the Precor EFX Precision Series and leg press machines. Gordie Jr. and Dan both help out now that their athletic careers are through. Business is booming, Big G says. Just booming.

Someone asks him where he got his sunglasses and he says he doesn’t know. "Oakley just sent them to me."

Big G calls Big G "Big G," too, as in, "Big G got nothing on Mojo Rawley," said, fawningly, to Mojo Rawley — WWE wrestler, friend of the family, and special guest on Gronk’s Party Ship. While his sons were backstage at the weekend’s various concerts and events, safe from grasping Patriots-themed fingernails, Gordy Sr. was mostly among the passengers, beaming, dancing, posing for selfies, and accepting congratulations on his brood from the many, many people eager to offer them.

Wouldn’t you want to throw a party like this for your family?

WWE wrestler Mojo Rawley takes a break from limbo.

The narrative is that of the brothers Gronkowski, a clan of superhuman athletes. But in truth, the name "Gronk" refers to only one of them. In a Visa ad released last year, Gronk walks around town in his 87 jersey, receiving high fives, tables at fancy restaurants, cakes from elderly ladies, and general adulation — only to turn around and reveal himself to be Dan Gronkowski, not Rob. Rob Gronkowski’s memoir is titled It’s Good To Be Gronk. The reality is it’s good to be one Gronk in particular.

Take Chris Gronkowski, for example. A day after Rob was drafted by the Patriots, Chris was signed by Dallas, reportedly with a paltry $10,000 signing bonus. His brief career in the NFL had perhaps its most notable moment in October 2010, when Chris, then a fullback with the Cowboys, missed a block, allowing Giants linebacker Michael Boley to pummel into quarterback Tony Romo. Romo was leveled and immediately came up clutching his shoulder; hours later, the team announced he had fractured his clavicle, ending his season. It’s the same clavicle that was rebroken last year, twice, again relegating Romo to the sideline.

How many undrafted fullbacks who suited up for three different teams during a three-year career ever get the opportunity to autograph somebody’s back on a private island, as Chris Gronkowski did?

Chris Gronkowski autographs a fan’s back.

Gronk’s Island

On the small boat shuttle to the island, a very muscular man with no shirt on tried to convince the passengers around him that he was Glenn Gronkowski. "I got combine in one week," he slurred.

"SIDDOWN, CHRIS!" one of his friends yelled.

Mojo Rawley, head wrapped in a Zubaz headband, stood up, bouncing as the ship began to move. "TIP THE BOAT!" he screamed. "TIP THE BOAT!"

I gulped.

On Gronk’s Island, a group of men stood in a lagoon and pumped their fists to the bassline. A stage had been set up, and Gronk joined the DJs periodically. When he spied a couple making out at the front of the crowd, he screamed 15 words that a guest caught on camera, which made headlines around the web. Any other NFL star — any other star, period — might quickly have come to regret those words, have needed to apologize for them, but instead they made everyone shake their heads and say, Oh, Gronk…

"I’ll give you ten grand cash right now if you bang in front of everybody."

The couple declined.

Rob Gronkowski on stage with Redfoo.

The Sixthman promotional materials promised a particular kind of paradise on the island: "Bro’s and Babes line the beach of Gronk’s very own private island with the sole intention of livin’ it up!"

"If this doesn’t sound Gronk’d enough for you," they continued, "then you’re not ready to party with the big dogs."

Don’t you want to party with the big dogs?

The island’s main event was, ostensibly, a flip cup tournament, featuring teams with names like Gronkaholic, Gronk-meowski, and DTF. As the afternoon wore on, Gronk eventually joined in. Allow me to tell you something that you probably do not know for certain, but which deep down you have probably always known: this was clearly not Rob Gronkowski’s first game of flip cup. When his team — which included his father and his brother, Chris — inevitably won, he and his fellow victors huddled and cheered, and then Gronk started leaping, bouncing up and down, taking off on his surgically repaired ACL and MCL, pivoting, leaping again. Chris’ career ended after he tore his hamstring; after Rob’s knee surgery in 2013 and a string of operations and complications to a forearm injury, many speculated that his days of dominance had come to a close. Instead, he followed up with a career year that concluded with a Super Bowl victory. It’s good to be Gronk.

Passengers compete in the flip cup tournament on Gronk’s Island.

All around him, passengers on Gronk’s Party Ship clamored for autographs. He signed most everything that was offered to him: jerseys, hats, a woman’s right butt cheek. A second woman in a Patriots bikini showed off a signed breast.

"I was like, sign me anywhere!" she said by way of explanation.

"Some chicks backstage showed me their titties," Gronk told the crowd, climbing back onstage from the small VIP section security set up behind it. "So front stage…."

He trailed off suggestively, at which point the crowd, always willing to follow his lead, screamed "TITTIES!" at a trio of bikini-clad women sitting on people’s shoulders as they danced. Gronk slipped backstage again and as the moments ticked by, still with no titties shown, the DJ yelled, "Show your titties!" The women did not.

Nearby, a group of men bought a bottle of Fireball from a beachside bar. As they passed it among themselves, they chanted: GRONK! GRONK! GRONK!

Gronk poses for a selfie with a passenger’s phone.

The Gronk vintage of partying is a sort of platonic ideal of frat culture. Here, when you wake up with a hangover — which you will, often — you laugh as you remember, hazily, everything that happened. It’s a world where no matter how drunk you get, you make only silly decisions and never bad ones, and when you engage with the opposite sex — which you will, even more often — the sex will be fantastic, readily given, and enthusiastically, ecstatically consensual. Partying is only fun in Gronk’s world. Bad things don’t happen.

Partying is only fun in Gronk’s world. Bad things don’t happen.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that Rob Gronkowski’s life, and specifically his partying, are as sunny as they’re portrayed to be. In May 2014, Gronkowski made headlines after he was photographed partying with Johnny Manziel in Las Vegas, the two of them surrounded by women in bikinis. Gronk was rehabbing an injury at the time, and critics accused him of not taking his training seriously. Here were two football stars who had adopted partying as part of their public brands — one already an All-Pro and AFC champion, the other the Heisman winner, freshly drafted by the Browns and certain to begin compiling his own NFL accomplishments soon. You know what happened next: the rehab, the alleged drinking during the season, the demotion by the Browns, the neighbor’s call to 911, the helicopter search for a man accused of hitting his girlfriend so hard she lost hearing in one ear.

Rob Gronkowski, for all his partying, has never been accused of any wrongdoing. But it’s hard not to look at the things he does in public and wonder where they will lead him once he’s no longer scoring touchdowns, once he’s too old to play the frat boy he makes himself out to be, once it’s not charming anymore, once he no longer receives the benefit of the doubt.

Gronk has built a brand where he can be filmed motorboating a woman in a bar shortly after judging a bikini contest, as he was in May, and instead of being castigated, face something that often seems eerily like praise. Through some combination of charisma, on-field talent, and more mysterious forces, including, one thinks not insignificantly, that he is a 6’7 white man from Buffalo, every salty thing he says is treated at worst as a benevolent quirk. Add to this that in spite of his self-stated propensity for hard liquor, he never seems out of control. As his party ship sailed out to sea, he occasionally hinted at some boundary he was mindful of: when Mojo Rawley bobbed toward him on stage late one night, fists raised as if to play-fight, Gronk gave a quick shake of his head and Rawley backed off.

For now, his fans just want to see him win, badly. They’ve seen a lot of it: in Arizona, at Foxborough, in Super Bowl XLIX. The last night on the ship, Gronk joined his brothers in a round of Family Feud against a group of passengers. Wearing matching cutoff jumpsuits, the Gronkowskis were aggressively terrible, rarely allowing the increasingly exasperated host to get more than a few words of a prompt out before guessing an answer, usually something drinking-related. The audience loved it.

"Chicks!" Gronk, who had by this point in the voyage lost his voice, rasped when asked to name something you wouldn’t want anyone to borrow. "I won again!" he wheezed into the microphone when "significant other" was revealed on the board.

But the Gronkowskis’ tactic proved less than successful, and when it came time for a bonus round, they were eliminated, leaving only the winning group of passengers to play. Gronk then feigned sadness, suggesting he was too disappointed to continue partying with passengers that night — at which point the winning team begged him to change his mind and forfeited the round to Team Gronk to keep them on the stage.

"He must be sooo drunk right now," a woman in the audience gushed admiringly.

On Monday, the ship returned to port, and passengers wobbled down the gangway, clutching their heads and wearing T-shirts that said "I PARTIED WITH GRONK."

"My niece asked me what getting gronkd meant," a passenger wrote in the cruise’s Facebook group a day after the trip ended. "I told her it was getting drunk but not fall down drunk. It was being the happiest you have ever been."