PHOENIX -- Bill O'Brien remembered it clearly. How could he forget?
The Patriots welcomed University of Arizona tight end Rob Gronkowski to their facilities at Gillette Stadium for a visit ahead of the 2010 draft. The 20-year-old showed up wearing a button-down shirt and tie, and he had a blazer hanging from his 6-foot-6 frame.
Standard interview attire, maybe. But Gronkowski wasn't about to endure a standard interview. The Patriots wanted to see how heavy his hands were. They wanted to see the width of his shoulders. They wanted to see what he'd absorb when it came to blocking techniques.
"By the time we were done, buttons were undone, his hair was all over the place," O'Brien said. "He goes, 'I've never done anything like that before!' "
The Texans head coach has a unique perspective on Gronkowski's career, which he shared from the league's annual meeting at the Arizona Biltmore about 24 hours after Gronkowski announced his retirement on Instagram.
O'Brien was the Patriots quarterbacks coach during Gronkowski's rookie year and then his offensive coordinator when Gronkowski set the single-season record for touchdowns by a tight end (18) in 2011. For the last five years O'Brien has competed against Gronkowski, working to cook up schemes to slow down one of the focal points of what is annually one of the best offenses in the AFC.
When I caught up with O'Brien on Monday, he didn't react to the news of Gronkowski's retirement quite like Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. ("Awesome!") Instead, while happy for Gronkowski, O'Brien expressed some dismay that this totally unique talent -- one that went off for seven catches, 123 yards and a touchdown in a Week 1 win over O'Brien's Texans -- won't be playing any longer.
"I've had him, [DeAndre] Hopkins and [Randy] Moss," O'Brien said. "I'd put his hands right up there with any of them. He could bend over, catch it off the ground. His hands were tremendous."
O'Brien added: "I know he's been banged up. But the game is going to miss him."
MORE ON GRONK'S RETIREMENT
- Top ten plays of Gronk's career
- Patriots didn't orchestrate Gronk's retirement
- Curran: Gronk had nothing more to give
Bill Belichick was enamored with Gronkowski and really wanted to draft him nine years ago, O'Brien recalled. Soon thereafter, Gronkowski made it very clear that he would leave his imprint on the league, dominating in rookie minicamp alongside fellow first-year tight end Aaron Hernandez. With that pair in the fold, it was O'Brien who coordinated the two-tight end sets that became en vogue in Gronkowski's record-breaking second year.
"People maybe that didn't know him thought he was a big partier," O'Brien said. "But this guy put nothing but good food into his body. He drank a gallon of water a day. He was banged up, I know, but he took really good care of his body . . .
"And he was tough. He brought a lot of toughness to our team. The guy was a tough [dude]."
It wasn't just the coaching staff that saw Gronkowski's greatness early. Tom Brady, O'Brien said, saw it during Gronkowski's first year. The veteran quarterback was hard on his new tight end because he knew what he had in Gronkowski was rare.
"Brady worked this guy to the bone," O'Brien said. "I'm talking 20 routes every day after practice . . . [Brady] knew he was going to be unbelievable."
O'Brien made sure to point out that for all the game-breaking talent Gronkowski possessed, the energy he brought to the locker room -- shoulder-bumping teammates randomly throughout the day, laughing constantly -- was part of what made him special. He did his work, but he was always himself, and his demeanor rubbed off on others inside a building that has a reputation for being a stressful place to work.
The game might miss Gronkowski, as O'Brien indicated. The Patriots certainly will.
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