Editor’s note: Rob Gronkowski is poised to end his retirement after being traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Tuesday. This piece was originally published on Jan. 30, 2018, prior to the New England Patriots playing the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII.
The action of forcing an object (usually a football) into the ground with tremendous force as a way of celebration or because you’re f—ing hammered and felt like doing it anyway.
— Definition of a “Gronk Spike,” via Urban Dictionary
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The Gronk Spike debuted on Sept. 26, 2010. After scoring his second NFL touchdown on a short pass from Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski raised his left leg in Juan Marichal-like fashion, reached back with his meaty right arm, hopped three times on his right foot and fired the ball into the turf.
The only imperfection was an untied lace on his left shoe, the ideal metaphor for Gronkowski, who has never been accused of being tightly wound.
With his big personality and big talent, Gronkowski embraced the end zone spike early in his career and transformed it into a cultural phenomenon. He has executed no fewer than 72 touchdown spikes in his career, not including the can of beer he spiked last year at the New England Patriots‘ Super Bowl parade (after chugging the contents). Or the bridal bouquet he spiked at a wedding reception. Or the puck he spiked at a Boston Bruins game.
“The spike is the best celebration — it’s a classic — and he definitely brought it to a new level, trademarking it for himself,” teammate Ted Karras said. “Now you say, ‘Gronk Spike.’ I think that’s pretty cool. He changed the verbiage of the term.”
Rules prohibited Gronkowski from spiking in high school or college, so he’s making up for lost time. ESPN analyzed 82 of his 87 career touchdowns (five scores from his rookie season were unavailable on video) and determined that he has spiked the ball on 88 percent of his trips to the end zone. That includes the postseason.
Emboldened by his historic season in 2011, when he produced 17 touchdown receptions to set the single-season record for a tight end, Gronkowski’s spike rate has jumped to 93 percent since 2012.
A few trends emerged from our video breakdown (yeah, we did that), some of which might surprise you:
He’s a scoreboard-savvy spiker, which means he isn’t one of those knuckleheads who celebrates an individual accomplishment when his team is getting its butt kicked. There have been three occasions when he passed up a spike because the Patriots were behind late in the game. The most recent example was the 2015 AFC Championship Game, in which he scored with 12 seconds left to cut the Denver Broncos‘ lead to two points. Instead of succumbing to the adrenaline, Gronkowski simply flipped the ball to an official.
He prefers a solo act. Only once has he engaged a teammate, and that occurred in Week 12 this season against the Miami Dolphins. After a juggling catch in the end zone, he beckoned Danny Amendola, who “cleared” an area for Gronkowski by kicking away invisible debris on the Gillette Stadium turf. Gronk responded with one of his most vicious spikes of the 2017 season.
He knows his audience. In 2012, after scoring at Wembley Stadium, he impersonated a Royal Guard, marching like a soldier for several steps before … well, you know. Later in that game, Gronk went from Buckingham Palace to SoHo (London’s red-light district), holding the ball above his head and gyrating his hips in a circular fashion before delivering a spike. If Queen Elizabeth had been watching, she might have blushed. It was the only spike in Gronkowski’s career that could be deemed … well, PG-13.
“He spikes because of emotion,” Homer Jones said on the phone from Pittsburg, Texas. “I did it for conservation.”
Jones invented the touchdown spike on Oct. 17, 1965, while playing for the New York Giants. After scoring his first career touchdown, an 89-yard reception against the Philadelphia Eagles, the super-fast wide receiver was about to fling the ball into the Yankee Stadium crowd. Just then …
We’ll let him tell the story.
“I said to myself that if I ever scored a touchdown, I’d throw the ball in the stands because I’d seen [Frank] Gifford throw it in the stands,” Jones said. “But during the offseason, after the ’64 season, [commissioner Pete] Rozelle decided it would be a $500 fine because people in the stands were tussling and getting hurt, fighting for the ball.
“In my mind, I intended to throw it in the stands when I scored, but then I thought about the $500, so I just threw it to the ground. That’s how the spike started. It was conservation. I saved $500.”
Jones said he coined the term “spike,” though it didn’t catch on right away. A writer for his hometown newspaper, the Dallas Morning News, wrote that Jones “has a funny habit of throwing the ball down when he crosses the goal line.”
A half-century later, Jones, 76, is amazed that his funny habit has become such a thing. Truth be told, he isn’t a fan of today’s extravagant end zone celebrations, but he respects Gronkowski (“one of the best at what he does”) and smiles every time he sees a Gronk Spike.
“In my mind, I intended to throw it in the stands when I scored, but then I thought about the $500, so I just threw it to the ground. That’s how the spike started. It was conservation. I saved $500.” Homer Jones, inventor of the spike
The star tight end said the key to the perfect Gronk Spike is the grip. In a November interview with the Boston Globe, Gronkowski said he makes sure to hold the tip of the ball — not the belly.
“So when you follow through, you can hit the belly of the ball right onto the ground, and it gives you the most power and the most explosiveness that you can get and generate,” Gronkowski said.
Whatever he does, it works. Years ago, a former MIT graduate student named Dan Thaler conducted a “Gronk Spike” study for the Boston Herald and concluded that the ball leaves Gronkowski’s hand at 60 mph. That’s faster than a pro golfer’s swing, according to Thaler.
“I don’t think anybody spikes it as hard as Gronk,” teammate Duron Harmon said. “When you see him spike that ball, and you see the pictures of the beads coming up from the turf because of the force he has, it’s great. It’s great.”
Here are some fun facts about Gronkowski’s career in spiking:
Instead of celebrating his first NFL touchdown with a spike, the precocious rookie walked over to Brady and handed him the ball. Knowing Gronk, he might have been thinking, “Hey, dude, you might want to keep this. It’ll be worth a lot someday.”
His success rate isn’t 100 percent. In 2012, after scoring against the Tennessee Titans, the great Gronkowski whiffed. That’s right, the ball slipped out of his hand mid-windup.
He minds his manners. Gronkowski has received only three taunting penalties in eight years, according to NFL stats.
Even though he prefers the conventional spike, he occasionally varies his pre-windup technique. We’ve seen a shoulder shake, a crow hop and a back-step (only once, in a playoff game against the Kansas City Chiefs). In 2015, he showed his true Gronk personality by flexing both biceps after a touchdown in the Buffalo Bills‘ stadium, not far from his hometown. Maybe he felt more comfortable in front of his peeps.
In 2011, Gronkowski was faked into a non-spike (not to be confused with Dan Marino’s celebrated Fake Spike in 1994). Facing the Indianapolis Colts, Gronkowski scored on a short pass and walked off with the ball, thinking it was his 14th touchdown reception of the season — a record for tight ends. He wanted the ball as a keepsake. Ah, but the replay revealed that it was a backward pass, so the score went into the books as a rushing touchdown, the only one of Gronkowski’s career.
The following week, Gronk scored the record-breaker against the Washington Redskins, but he didn’t realize it until after the spike. So there he was, chasing after a bouncing ball in the end zone at FedExField.
“On a scale of one to 10, I’d give him a 9.7,” teammate David Andrews joked. “There’s always room for improvement. He’s a dynamic player, and there’s [a] lot of force behind the ball. It’s coming from high up.”
Each spike is a dagger to the opponent. Former NFL defensive lineman Mike DeVito was subjected to six Gronk Spikes during his career with the New York Jets and Chiefs, and now he’s surrounded by Gronk mania because he lives in Maine. He sees images of the Gronk Spike all over town, from the grocery store to his favorite Dunkin’ Donuts.
“To get scored on by New England and to watch Gronk spike it like he does, it adds insult to injury,” DeVito said. “It’s salt in the wound.”
And yet …
“As a big guy, I can relate to him,” DeVito said. “He kind of reminds me of an offensive lineman. He’s a lunch-pail guy, and he likes to smash the football. He’s old-school. He doesn’t dance around. He just likes to drive the ball into the dirt. There’s something to be said for that.”