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Teammates say Gronkowski is a care-free personality off the field, but that he "turns that switch on" when it comes to game time.
Teammates say Gronkowski is a care-free personality off the field, but that he 'turns that switch on' when it comes to game time.

Patriots play waiting game on game changer Rob Gronkowski

At 6ft 6ins tall, with hands like a vice and the ability to steamroll over attempted tackles, it is no wonder New England have their fingers crossed the tight end is fit come Sunday.

At 6ft 6ins tall, with hands like a vice and the ability to steamroll over attempted tackles, it is no wonder New England have their fingers crossed that Gronkowski is fit come Sunday. Howard Ulman reports

The sign outside the restaurant a mile up the road from the New England Patriots' stadium has a flashing sign that tells motorists: "HONK FOR GRONK!"

Plenty of car horns will be blaring if Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots' fun-loving tight end, returns next week as a Super Bowl champion.

If his season so far is any indication, Gronkowski will have a major role when the Patriots face the New York Giants on Sunday in the NFL championship game. One sign of his importance is that much of the Super Bowl talk to date has focused on Gronkowski's sore left ankle.

"He's had a lot of production," Bill Belichick, the coach, said. "He's had a lot of touchdowns. He's had a lot of good blocks. I don't know what a 'game changer' is, but he's definitely made some plays."

Gronkowski has 90 receptions this year, including 21 of more than 20 yards, and he has scored 17 touchdowns. He combines his pass-catching skills with an impressive physical game, a 265-pound (120kg) steamroller who mows down defenders on the way to the end zone and a battering blocker who springs teammates for big gains.

That's just part of what makes him a game changer.

"No question," Matthew Slater, the wide receiver, said. "He's kind of a once-in-a-lifetime talent with the skill set that he has. So we love getting him the ball in his hands, and he loves having the ball in his hands, and he does special things when he has the ball in his hands."

And he has hands like a vice.

On the first of his three touchdowns in a 45-10 divisional play-off win over the Denver Broncos, Gronkowski dived in the left side of the end zone and got his right hand on Tom Brady's 10-yard pass. The ball popped up and, acrobatically, he grabbed it with both hands and clutched it as he fell.

"That catch," Brady said, "was a phenomenal catch, but he's been making those all year. So, really, it doesn't surprise us as much because he's able to make those type of plays in practice and training camp, so you get used to it after a while."

Gronkowski's teammates are confident he will play in the Super Bowl after suffering what his father said was a high left ankle sprain in the third quarter of a 23-20 win over the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC championship game.

He skipped practice two days last week, but Slater said: "There's not too many guys tougher than him out there. So I would imagine he's going to do everything he can to be out there."

The 2010 second-round draft pick from Arizona set an NFL single-season record for tight ends with his 17 touchdown catches. His 90 receptions were fifth in the NFL and his 1,327 yards receiving were sixth.

New York's cornerbacks are all at least six inches shorter than the 6ft 6ins (1.98m) Gronkowski. So what's their plan for stopping him?

"Get a ladder, probably," Tom Coughlin, the Giants coach, joked. "This is a very gifted tight end and there's two of them, as you know.

"He's had an outstanding career and rewritten some of the record books along the way and has done a very good job of making the big-play catch as well. He's become someone that Brady looks to go to in certain areas of the field as well, certainly in the red zone."

On the field, Gronkowski is all business, except when he spikes the ball after scoring. He understands the offence, runs precise routes and makes complex adjustments in a split second.

Off the field, he is a happy-go-lucky 22 year old whom Zoltan Mesko, the punter, calls "hilarious" and Rob Ninkovich, the linebacker, describes as "a free spirit" who gets along with everyone.

"I guess he says it best," Ninkovich said. "I think he refers to himself as a beast all the time. 'I'm a beast.' So I think that when he gets on the field he obviously puts himself in a different mindset and does his beasting the best on the field. Everybody says that they're different on the field and you can see that with a lot of guys."

Sometimes, Gronkowski's carefree off-field persona can lead to trouble. During the Patriots' bye week after their sixth game, BiBi Jones, the adult film performer, posted two pictures of her with Gronkowski on her Twitter account. She was wearing his Patriots jersey in both. In one, he was shirtless.

He met with Robert Kraft, the team owner, and apologised publicly, saying being in the professional ranks is a learning process and "I didn't intend anything to hurt the reputation of anyone on the New England Patriots."

Since then, he has stuck with the team-first approach that Belichick emphasises, often answering questions about his success by crediting teammates.

"It's unbelievable," Gronkowski said after the win over the Ravens put the Patriots in their fifth Super Bowl in 11 years. "It's my second year in the league, playing with a great team, and you have to enjoy the moment.

"It doesn't even feel right, especially playing with the veterans here. I watched them go to the Super Bowl as I was growing up and now I'm part of it. It is an unreal moment and you can't take it for granted."

The other Patriots don't seem to mind his cult-hero status with the fans.

"He's a great teammate," Slater said. "He's a light-hearted kid and he loves the game of football. He's just a joy to play with."

But when it's time to play, Gronkowski doesn't fool around.

"He turns that switch on," Slater said. "You guys see what he does out there. So you can't argue with what you see."

* Associated Press

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