FOXBORO, Mass. — Now in his seventh NFL season, Dont’a Hightower is one of the New England Patriots’ most established veterans.

But back in the summer of 2012, Hightower was just another rookie tasked with the unenviable assignment of covering superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski on the practice field.

The Patriots linebacker reflected on that experience Wednesday when asked to recall his “welcome to the NFL” moment.

“My first day of practice, going up against Chico (Aaron Hernandez) and Gronk and having him run a 7 (route) on me and Moss me,” Hightower said. “Tom (Brady) put the ball in this crazy spot that obviously only him and Gronk can do. I was like, ‘Man, what the hell? What kind of stuff are you — what the hell is this?’

“But it was great. You continue to grow on that, and it helps having great players like that around.”

Fortunately for Hightower, his only encounters with Gronkowski have come in practice. Scores of other linebackers around the league have not been so lucky.