FOXBORO – It was a sizzling and steamy Tuesday morning at the New England Patriots training camp.
"A hot day like that, a hot practice like that, can test your soul," tight end Rob Gronkowski said afterward. "To me, it’s fun. And some of what happens in it is part of the nature of the game."
That "nature" Gronkowski was dissecting was a late practice brawl between veteran receiver Julian Edelman and new cornerback Stephon Gilmore, in from the Buffalo Bills. Edelman and Gilmore, once fierce rivals, looked more comfortable keeping it that way.
The Edelman/Gilmore fracas in the end zone after an incomplete pass caused most of their teammates to rush toward them and snuff it. Edelman was booted from practice. Gilmore was too.
You fight in Patriots practice, you bounce.
Gronkowski knows this. He enters his eighth Patriots season. But what you probably did not know is that he has never been kicked out of a Patriots practice since he joined the team in 2010.
"Not one," he said. "I’ve never gotten to that point. I leave all of that on the field."
Imagine that, Rob Gronkowksi, the shirtless party animal, the guy who has lived a life away from football with verve while being hawked by social media, a man with an impromptu, exuberant style. That man. He has never been bounced from a Patriots practice for fighting.
Never been tossed at all.
"I always put my football first on the field," Gronkowski said. "When I hit that field, I bring my all. I’m older. I’m wiser. It’s my eighth year in the league. I wish I knew then, back when I was a rookie, some of the things I know now.”
Gronkowski, 28, has been able to keep it together, all 6’6 and 265 pounds of him, except when he can’t stay on the field due to injuries.
Only once in his previous seven regular seasons has he played all 16 games (2011). He has missed 24 of 112 regular season games. He missed New England’s Super Bowl victory over Atlanta last February while healing from an injured back.
So, since the Patriots won it all in stunning manner without him, how good can they be with him healthy in 2017?
"I don’t want to go there," Gronkowski said, shaking his head. "I can’t."
He said last year’s story has been told and this year’s story has yet to be written.
But defensive back Devin McCourty obliged. McCourty was in the same draft class as Gronkowski in 2010, McCourty from Rutgers, Gronkowski from Arizona.
"When he went down in the Denver game the year before, that was a big injury that looked really bad and had us concerned," McCourty said. "But he came back from that and it prepared us for last season when he was hurt; we realized that we all just had to do more. And I think Tom (Brady) missing those first four games (Deflategate suspension) also strengthened us as a team. Both situations reminded all the rest of us what we can do as a team when everybody gives just a little bit more.
"So, I think that’s going to serve us well this time with him (Gronkowski) we hope here for the whole season. Everyone talks about his size. They don’t realize that he has become an exceptional route runner. In previous practices I could just out-quick him while covering him. But now he is running the kind of routes with perfection that get defenders on their toes."
The Patriots would love that gift for an entire season.
Gronkowski said he has changed his diet to one similar to Brady’s; less meat, more green with plenty of other special quirks in-between. Gronkowski is seeking longevity this season. Endurance.
"It’s a new season," he said. "A new me."
He was asked why wouldn’t the old one do?
"Well, people confuse a lot of it," Gronkowski said. "I give my all to the game. But now I’m learning more about building and preserving the body, hopefully doing some things that will lessen the injury factor for me. You take a lot of hits in this game. And I’m a big target. So, you always need more to hang your confidence on. You’ve got to have confidence in this game."
He is a four-time Pro-Bowl player with 68 career touchdown receptions. A two-time Super Bowl champion yearning for a third.
A new season. A new "Gronk."
Former Jets linebacker David Harris is new here. He had worked against Gronkowski in so many big games.
Practicing against him is different, Harris said. Being a teammate with him now is bizarre, he added.
"When you are around him all the time now, you appreciate even more his size, but even more than that how he works his tail off," Harris said. "He does it in the offseason. He does it in camp. He is also a much better blocker than people realize.
"There is a constant theme here and it’s hard work. Everybody does it. The coaches and the players and everyone involved. It’s an attitude here. And he embodies it."
In fact, that is what Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said he is looking for most in this camp, the player who will give that type of effort in "sequential" performances. Belichick is looking forward to studying his team in practices here against the Jacksonville Jaguars early next week before they play on Aug. 10 in both teams’ first preseason game
Belichick talked about the push, how they handle contact, how they deliver contact – that is the crux of training camp, the sizzling, steamy and physical.
New England has added flashy weapons including defensive lineman Kony Ealy from Carolina and receiver Brandin Cooks from New Orleans. But a healthy dose of Gronk can play a major factor in their repeat title hopes.
"Certainly you want great players in a title run," said Patriots special teams ace and philosopher Matthew Slater. "But what we also know in championship football is that continually good beats occasionally great. Rob helps set a standard here that helps every player do this: Give all I have on that field until I am empty."