The first time you watched Rob Gronkowski play football, you probably thought about a lot of things other than his name. Maybe you thought, “Jesus, that guy’s big” or “Are we sure he’s not a defensive lineman?” or, with some premonition of what was to come, “Fuckin’ Belichick.” At most, perhaps you reacted the way some guy in the stands at Gillette Stadium did during the opening game of the 2010 season, hollering “Gronkowski!” when Tom Brady connected with the rookie tight end for no. 87’s first career NFL touchdown, rolling those 10 letters around as if to see if you might be able to get used to saying them. But the name—one that would be shortened, posthaste, into a single, easier-to-holler syllable—was mostly beside the point.
The same cannot be said for a group of unrelated strangers scattered around the country, who just so happened to have one big thing in common: the last name Gronkowski.
“Gronkowski,” it turns out, is both a rare last name in the United States and one that is, thanks to Gronk’s nine superhuman seasons in New England and the two that preceded them at the University of Arizona, utterly inseparable from the football player. Which leaves the other Gronkowskis—ones who’ve never met Gronk or his family, who do not root for the Patriots, who’ve never even been to Rob’s hometown of Buffalo, New York, for crying out loud—entwined with the fate and career of an unrelated athlete.
Rob is now, at the wizened football age of 30, retired from the sport. And while he doesn’t seem keen on fading into obscurity—the WWE and Hollywood both seem likely to get a Gronking or two, though, uh, maybe not that kind—now that his football heroics are behind him, he will at the very least pop up less frequently in the news. (Probably.) And slowly, ever so slowly, people might stop associating the name “Gronkowski” with Gronk, Rob, the Patriots, football, Arizona, Brady, the number 69, twerking, body shots, and chicks and bros just havin’ a good time. In time, it might just go back to being a very long name that people mispronounce, or that they don’t even try to say at all.
Or at least, that’s what many of those other Gronkowskis would like to think.
To say that “Gronkowski” is an uncommon last name in the United States is to put it mildly. The 2000 census counted just 107 American Gronkowskis. (The 2000 census, not 2010, is the most recent available data for the name, an anomaly perhaps explained by the fact that the Census Bureau doesn’t publish data for last names with fewer than 100 individuals. The numbers are, perhaps, in decline.) According to an authoritative study conducted in 2019 (as in me messaging nearly every single person with the last name Gronkowski who I could find on Facebook), there are a handful more in greater North America, but that’s about it outside of Europe: The name literally means “from Gronków,” a village in southern Poland.
“My dad always says our aunt—who’s still alive, I think she’s 95—she’s the oldest living Gronkowski,” says Chris Gronkowski. “Or that’s what he always claims.”
Chris, the former NFL fullback and older brother to Rob, knows more than most about the rarity of Gronkowskis. Chris first took an interest in, er, nominal ancestry in the way that a lot of us have: He wanted to know if anyone else had his same name, so he searched social media. He found a match—another Chris Gronkowski was living in Canada—and his wonder grew. “It was just like, wow, they have the same last name and I’ve never seen that before,” he says of the other Gronkowskis he came across. “So I’d follow or hit them back.”
For some of these name-sharers, seeing his blue check mark land in their inboxes—“Chris Gronkowski (@Chrisgronkowski) is now following you on Twitter!”—was a cause for bemusement. Tim Gronkowski, who lives in Chicago, took the opportunity to DM him: “Hey cuz!” he wrote. Months later, he finally got a reply: “Are we really cousins?” Chris asked.
Like his brothers Rob, Dan, and Glenn, Chris played professional football; the Cowboys signed him in 2010, two days after the Patriots drafted Rob. (The oldest of the five boys, Gordie Jr., was drafted by the Los Angeles Angels in 2006.) Chris spent four years in the league and now lives in Dallas, where he runs an insulated water bottle company called Ice Shaker that all five brothers turned up to pitch on Shark Tank in 2017. (They walked away with a deal with Mark Cuban and guest judge Alex Rodriguez.)
When the brothers were growing up in Buffalo, nobody ever got their name quite right. “They always said Gran, like Grankowski,” Chris says. Or else it was “Granakowski.” Or else it was nothing at all. “Most people wouldn’t even try to pronounce it,” he says. “They’d just give up.”
By the time Chris, two years Rob’s senior, started playing youth baseball, things got a little bit easier, since his two older brothers had already passed through Buffalo’s sporting leagues: “At that point it was like, ‘Oh, here’s another Gronkowski brother.’ They kind of just assumed we’d be really good at sports,” he says.
Things changed once Rob became a star in New England. His name—clipped down to Gronk—took on a life of its own. In time, Rob would come to own the trademark on the word Gronk, which has, in turn, become a verb (one of the perhaps intentionally vague use cases) and a lifestyle. (The nickname “Gronk” has mostly been reserved for Rob. Chris got another part of the name: Thanks to a coach in Dallas, he says, “Everyone on the Cowboys knew me as ’Ski.”)
Indeed, Rob’s post-NFL plans seem to be taking shape in the form of an eponymous empire: see Gronk Fitness (tagline: “It’s a Mindset”), a hub of all things fitness, from air bikes to Zubaz leggings to 44-pound lifting chains, many demonstrated and/or shilled on the website by a rotating cast of Gronkowski brothers. The recently acquired Protein Cookie Co. (that’s right—cookies, but with protein) is just one of the fitness-adjacent products to earn the official Gronk Fitness seal of approval, says Chris. There’s more still: On Tuesday, Rob turned up in New York City to announce that he’s partnered with a line of CBD products to better help those recovering from aches, football-induced or otherwise. (CBD is, for now, still on the NFL’s list of banned substances.)
I explained my project to Chris, and he, a veteran of the same search, excitedly asked how many Gronkowskis I’ve found: “It’s hard to find them!” he says. The problem of locating fellow Gronks has grown especially tricky on social media, Chris says, where many a Patriots fan has adopted the mantle out of devotion to no. 87. (Asked if her name was really “Robin Gronkowski,” one user told me, “No lol it’s a backup account for when I get blocked on FB.”)
“What became hard once the name became really famous was to differentiate if that was really someone’s last name, because girls especially were using it as their last name,” Chris says. “At that point, you can’t really tell if they’re being serious or if it’s just a joke.”
One of the Gronkowskis that Chris followed on Twitter: my good friend Tom. When we first met in college, I didn’t think much of his last name, which—given that this was in early 2010, just before the Patriots drafted Rob—makes me among the very last people to meet him and not do a double-take.
Tom—the nephew of Tim, who DMed Chris—was born and raised in Chicago, as was his father, John, and his grandfather, Ed, who, just so you know, also went by the nickname Gronk. Tom’s great-grandfather, also named John, came from Poland to Chicago as a child, and no one in Tom’s family tree, at least to his knowledge, has ever had anything to do with Buffalo. The Rob line has Buffalo roots just as deep, stretching back to the champion cyclist, and possible source of genetic hyperathleticism, Ignatius “Iggy” Gronkowski, who was born in Buffalo in 1897 and represented the U.S. at the 1924 Olympics in Paris. The Buffalo Gronkowskis, too, trace their ancestry back to Poland.
“It has become very akin to the Michael Bolton joke in Office Space,” says Tom, 30. “‘I’ll be honest with you, I love his football playing!’”
Three years ago, I was sent on assignment on a cruise hosted by Rob Gronkowski and family, where I witnessed, among other debauchery, Chris autographing a fan’s back; Tom and I had joked about him coming along and deploying his last name to get an audience with Rob, who had turned down all media requests for the voyage.
Recently, Tom needed to hire a lawyer to finalize some paperwork, and she didn’t come cheap: “Her hourly rate was like $560 or something,” he says. “And first thing on my first call with her, like clockwork: ‘You wouldn’t happen to, uh, be related to—’ and I just cut her off right there: ‘I have no idea.’ I’m not going to pay you $20 to ponder this old chestnut for the thousandth time.”
In the years before Rob Gronkowski became a household name—before he became Tom Brady’s favorite target, before the Gronk Spike, before the three Super Bowl rings, before the offseason shenanigans that made him a singular presence in the NFL—Tom too had used the nickname “Gronk.” “It used to be an old family trick to order something under the name Grant for expediency sake,” he says. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a new Gronk appeared, and with him came bizarro headlines like “Gronkowski’s Hands Are Key to His Success.”
It always starts the same way: I’m sure you get this all the time, but I have to ask ...
“I’ll be on the phone with AT&T, and the lady is like, ‘I just have to ask you, “Are you related?”’” says Michelle Gronkowski.
Michelle, 38, had already gotten the question once on the morning we spoke. She had called in to make a car payment and once again had to let the person on the other line down: No, sorry, no relation to Rob. It happens when she makes reservations and when she has her ID checked at bars. It happens at airports. It’s happened in job interviews.
Usually, Michelle—who is followed, naturally, by Chris Gronkowski on Twitter—tells the truth: Her family is small and Chicago-based, with no known link to Buffalo or NFL fame.
Once, with the Super Bowl approaching, she gave in: “I was like, yeah, we are, but I just don’t know my family really well.” But that’s as far as it’s gone. “I have never used it to get anything,” she says, laughing. “I probably should have.”
(A quick diversion: All the non-Gronk-family-member Gronkowskis interviewed in this story (1) grew up or currently live in Chicago and (2) insist that they are not related to any of the other non-Gronk-family-member Gronkowskis present there. To explain this, I offer two theories: First, that a very large percentage of the Polish American diaspora is rooted in Chicago, and second, that there is perhaps a semi-distant Polish émigré who landed in Chicago and is the common ancestor of all the various Chicago-based Gronkowski lines, and whose ghost is no doubt troubled by my extensive badgering of his descendants. Similarly, it is possible that the Chicago Gronkowskis do in fact share an ancestor with the Buffalo Gronkowskis, but if so, none of those on either side knows where that link might be.)
Victoria Gronkowski, 48, remembers the first time she learned about Rob. A work trip took her to the University of Arizona in 2008, where she and some colleagues went to watch a game at Arizona Stadium. “Of course I didn’t know that anybody by that name was playing there,” she says. “Then all of a sudden I saw him on the field. And I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, he has my last name!’”
Victoria is a Packers fan, which is a contentious enough allegiance for a Milwaukeean who currently lives in Chicago. But by the time Rob made it to the NFL the coincidence was too great to ignore: She bought a Gronkowski Patriots jersey. “That was kind of like being a two-timer,” she concedes—but what are the odds, you know? “You have to do that,” she says.
She’s had some fun with the common name over the years: “Sometimes I’ll say, ‘Yeah, he’s my cousin,’ and they’re like, ‘Oh, really?’” Then she lets them down: “And I say, ‘No, I wish I could say that.’”
Asked if he has any advice for the greater Gronkowski clan, Chris Gronkowski says what might double as the Buffalo Gronkowski motto: “Keep up the good name. Represent. Work hard. That’s what it stands for, I guess, at this point. And live life to the fullest.”
This fall will be the first without Gronk’s name on a collegiate or professional football roster in 13 years, and I ask Victoria if she thinks she might someday get some shred of anonymity back.
Victoria is glum about the prospect. “It’s definitely going to be missed,” she says. “He’s going to be missed.” For her, the name has been a frequent delight—a sure-thing icebreaker in any situation, from first dates to the puzzle group she’s part of.
For Michelle, the link to the tight end’s fame is especially poignant. Her father, who died in 2007, the same year that a freshman Gronk began to creep onto the national radar, was named Robert Gronkowski.
“It’s a shame because my dad loved sports, so he would have loved this,” she says. “I feel good about it in a way, because my dad loved his last name. And I’m glad now that his name is famous, even though I couldn’t make it famous.”
But even with Rob’s playing career at its end, not everyone thinks there will be a return to anonymity any time soon: “I assume I’ll be fielding the question till I die,” Tom says.
Last week, I went to Tom’s wedding in Chicago, where he married his longtime girlfriend, Jenni Held.
She’s keeping her last name.