Meet the man who brought Rob Gronkowski to Arizona

TUCSON, Ariz. — Donnie Salum made a good friend more than 20 years ago. They were in the same business — exercise equipment. They were passionate. Loud. Former football players. Kindred spirits.

They hit the trade shows, hit the town, shared old football stories, talked about family.

Salum’s buddy always beamed about his five boys. "Donnie," he often said, "I’ve got a freak."

Salum’s fitness business was in the growth stage, first in Phoenix and then beyond, and his friend would come out west to see his set-up. Salum returned the favor about 13 years ago, traveling to Buffalo to see his friend’s stores.

"Hey," he told Donnie. "Let’s go see my freak."

They headed out to a Little League game … and Salum’s jaw dropped when he saw his friend’s seventh-grade son.

That was the first time Salum laid eyes on the kid he knew as Robbie.

"He’s standing on first base, and he’s about 6-feet-2, 220 pounds, ripped out, and I could not believe what I was looking it," Salum said. "Later, he hits one between left and center, and he stretched it into a triple. He was the fastest guys on the field, too. He was a man-child. I could not believe what I was staring at."

It was probably right then the idea formed in Salum’s head: I’ve got to help make Rob Gronkowski an Arizona Wildcat.

Gronkowski was made for spotlight

Salum is one of the original Dick Tomey tough guys at Arizona, a walk-on linebacker from junior college who ended up leading the team in tackles in 1989, was selected the Wildcats’ co-player of the year along with cornerback Darryll Lewis.

These days, Salum is the "Man behind the Gronk."

When Gronkowski, the superstar tight end for New England Patriots, rehabbed after arm surgery in Boston, Salum was there for a month. As Gronkowski recovered from knee surgery in Los Angeles early last year, Salum was there for a week.

When Gronkowski and the family taped an appearance on "Conan" this week as part of the Super Bowl festivities, Salum was there.

Salum was set to host Rob, Papa Gronk — Gordy Gronkowski — and the rest of the family at his Valley-area home in the days leading up to the big game.

"Donnie is great," Gronkowski said this week at Super Bowl Media Day. "He is always there for support. He’s an awesome guy. And he’s a good motivator, too. He gets you amped up and he’s always there for my family."

Salum is the connection to how a kid from Buffalo, a football prospect who could have gone anywhere in the country, ended up at the opposite end of the map in Tucson, at a school going through a miserable stretch of football at the time.

"Without Donnie," former Arizona coach Mike Stoops once said, "there’s no Rob."

Salum first convinced one of Rob’s older brothers, Dan, to take a recruiting visit when John Mackovic was the head coach. Arizona did not offer a scholarship; Dan instead went to Maryland and later played in the NFL.

The family, however, was comfortable with Arizona, especially with a friend like Salum up the road in Scottsdale, and so Rob signed a letter of intent with the Wildcats in 2007.

"He helped us recognize what the University of Arizona was," Rob said of Salum. "He’s a great dude for it."

During Gronkowski’s freshman year, Salum was standing on the sidelines next to Tucson native Arte Moreno, an Arizona graduate and owner of the Los Angeles Angels. Moreno, who had attended Arizona games all his life, pointed to Gronkowski and said, "Donnie, I think that’s the best-looking athlete I’ve ever seen on the field."

He probably wasn’t wrong.

After Rob’s arrival, brother Chris transferred from Maryland to join the Wildcats as a fullback.

"Everyone always asks, ‘How did you get there?’" Chris said this week. "And every time, I have to give the whole Donnie story. He was out-of-control passionate about Arizona and just kept pushing it and pushing it."

Passionate? Salum was so vocal, so fired up, so out-of-control passionate during the Arizona-UCLA game in Rob’s freshman year that he collapsed a lung.

That’s nothing compared to what he’s going through now.

Salum is the get-hyped guy for the Gronkowski family. He told Rob back in his sophomore season that he could be the best ever to play the game at tight end if he worked hard.

"He’s changing the game," Salum said. "He’s rewriting the game."

Donnie Salum (left), with Rob Gronkowski (center) and Chris Gronkowski.

While Gronk is a pop-culture circus, a gravitational force drawing in dizzying craziness at an increasing rate, Salum is part of what helps keep him grounded. Think about all the noise around Gronkowski this week, and then think about a quiet moment in the pregame locker room when he is likely to check his phone and see a text from Salum.

"I used to text him just about his blocking," Salum said. "Because I figured if they threw it to him, he was going to take care of that. Now, I just tell him, ‘How bad do you want it?’

"He’s going to be so hyped. He just needs to know, ‘This is your time.’"

It’s not a one-way hype.

Salum says Rob’s energy, his child-like enthusiasm, helps him in the battle of his life. A couple of years ago, doctors discovered a rare bone tumor at the base of Salum’s brain stem. When Tomey helped organize an event May 2013 to raise funds for medical costs for Salum (who is married with three school-aged children), Rob traveled to Chandler, donating all manner of memorabilia to the silent auction.

"He gets me amped," Salum said of Rob, "and that means a lot to me."

Turns out, Rob and Donnie are kindred spirits, too. Goofy. Excitable.

Chris laughs.

"Every time, Donnie sees Rob he has to get pictures for some reason. It’s like he has never seen him before, but he’s been with Rob since the beginning," Chris said. "You would think he’s just some random fan who went up to him. It’s like every time is the first time. That’s who excited he gets. He’s like a little kid."

Salum was a Gronkowski guest at three New England Patriots games this season. He has seen behind the curtain in ways that few have, considering his more than two decades of friendship with Gordy.

"Rob is just one of the happiest guys you could ever meet," Salum said. "He’s happy-go-lucky. Always positive, always has a smile on his face. He’s loyal. He’s the whole package, Robbie is.

"And he’s incredibly smart. He talks a little goofy, and everybody thinks he’s dumb. Far from it. He’s very intelligent."

Gordy Gronkowski (left) and Donnie Salum met in the early 1990s at fitness industry trade shows.

This is Gronkowski’s second time in the Super Bowl. He hobbled through the big game on a bad ankle four years ago and caught only two passes as the Patriots lost to the Giants. Later that night, he had one of his YouTube moments, captured dancing shirtless at a club.

"It’s Robbie. I just laugh," Salum said of the Gronkowski’s fame away from the field.

"Robbie is just having fun. He just loves the game and is happy to be doing what he’s doing. The guys who are the best ever love the game the most and work the hardest. Robbie has that about him. He’s so happy to get back to the Super Bowl. Even thought he was dancing after the last one, he was crying for 2-1/2 hours after the game."

Whatever happens Sunday, Salum is grateful to play a part in the Gronkowski family saga and how it intersected with the Arizona Wildcats.

"They don’t forget people," Salum said of the Gronkowski family. "A lot of people, they forget you and move on. But they are so down to earth and such good people. I feel blessed just to be a small piece of it."

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