Patriots' Gronkowski gashes Steelers defense
By Mark Kaboly
Monday, November 15, 2010
He grew up in New York and went to college in Arizona, but Rob Gronkowski always wanted to play a football game at Heinz Field.
The New England Patriots rookie tight end was in the stands watching a Pitt or Steelers game during his brief time living in the city while graduating from Woodland Hills High School, but never stepped foot on the field until last night.
He quickly made up for lost time.
Gronkowski caught five passes for 72 yards and caught touchdown passes of 19, 9 and 25 yards in New England’s convincing 39-26 victory over the Steelers with a handful of his high school coaches on hand, including George Novak.
“We never made it (to Heinz Field) when I was here,” said Gronkowski, who transferred to Woodland Hills from his Buffalo-area school for his senior year in 2006. “I saw a Pitt game and a Steelers game here before and it is a great atmosphere. These fans are crazy.”
Gronkowski became the first Patriots rookie ever to score three touchdowns in a game. It was his first three-touchdown game since his sophomore year at Arizona.
“Rob words hard,” New England coach Bill Belichick said. “He has improved a lot over the year.”
Gronkowski came into the game as the Patriots’ second-string tight end behind veteran Alge Crumple with only 14 catches on the season, but three of them went for touchdowns.
New England and quarterback Tom Brady got Gronkowski involved early in the game.
The first drive, Brady hit Gronkowski for a 12-yard reception to put the Patriots across midfield. Five plays later, Brady hooked up with the 6-foot-6, 265-pounder across the middle for a stretching touchdown to give the Patriots a 7-0 lead.
Gronkowski was targeted once again in the opening drive of the second half when Brady connected with him from 9 yards outs for his second touchdown of the game. It capped a 10-play, 78-yard drive to give the Patriots a 17-3 lead.
Brady and Gronkowski hooked up for a third touchdown late in the game from 25 yards away.
They were the first touchdowns the Steelers allowed to tight ends this year. No tight end caught more than three passes in any of the first eight games against the Steelers.
“It was great to be able to contribute like that,” Gronkowski said. “It was nice to be able to help us win.”
Gronkowski came to Woodland Hills in the summer of 2006 amidst of controversy.
Gronkowski, ranked the No. 2 tight end in the country by one scouting service at the time, left Williamsville North High School (N.Y.) and enrolled at Woodland Hills in early August of that year.
The WPIAL almost immediately ruled him ineligible because they said he transferred at least in part for athletic intent.
Gronkowski moved to the Woodland Hills School District with his father, Gordon, who owned five G and G Fitness Equipment stores in the Pittsburgh area.
The PIAA later ruled Gronkowski eligible and he helped lead the Wolverines to an 8-3 record and a trip to the WPIAL quarterfinals before losing to North Allegheny.
Gronkowski caught eight passes for 152 yards and four touchdowns his senior year in Novak’s heavy run-oriented offense, but made a name for himself as a blocker.
“I met a lot of great people in my time here and I wouldn’t change anything,” he said. “It was fun and I still keep in touch with my high school coaches.”
Gronkowski committed to Arizona on signing day and instantly became a star in the PAC 10.
In just 22 games at Arizona, he shattered all of the school’s receiving records for tight ends, including career, season and game marks.
Gronkowski missed the 2009 season with a back injury that required surgery. He was still drafted in the second round by the Patriots.
Since graduating, Gronkowski said he has been back to Pittsburgh “once or twice” but said he loved his time here.
“It was a great experience for me,” Gronkowski said.
So was last night.
Mark Kaboly can be reached at email@example.com