The secret to Rob Gronkowski’s success was clear to those who most closely watched him.

Three former New England Patriots assistant coaches shared anecdotes with The Boston Globe’s Ben Volin last week at the NFL owners’ meetings that help explain what made the recently retired tight end so great. Each story shows Gronkowski not only was blessed with natural talent but also was willing to work as hard as necessary to make the most of his gifts. Volin relayed the Gronk tales in his “Sunday Football Notes.”

Brian Flores worked in the Patriots organization between 2006 and February 2019, rising up the ranks from scouting assistant to de facto defensive coordinator before leaving to become the Miami Dolphins’ head coach. He said Gronkowski’s practice habits set him apart.

“All of my Gronk stories end in a spike,” Flores said “He was just such a great practice player. I think that’s the one thing that people — there’s no way to know about that. The way this guy blocked, that’s kind of a lost art at the tight end position now. Just his toughness and ability to want to go into the trenches and do those things. That’s the one thing — there’s no story, but he did a great job in practice on a day-to-day basis.”

Gronkowski was big, fast and strong but his intelligence struck former Patriots offensive coordinator and current Houston Texans head coach Bill O’Brien.

“Great guy,” O’Brien said. “He had an awesome energy about him. Really talented guy. Very instinctive, very football smart. He learned fast, had an excellent instinct for the game, instinct for coverages. Learned how to be a really good run blocker, too.”

Matt Patricia, former Patriots defensive coordinator and Detroit Lions head coach, recalled one story about Gronkowski that’s nothing short of a gem.

“We’d do a goal line, 7-on-7 period every Friday practice,” Patricia said. “We put the trash cans out there as the O-line, and they’d be running crossing routes. Being a defensive coach, I was trying to make it as difficult as possible.

“So Rob is running a crossing route behind me and I knew he was. So I took the garbage can and I just slung it backwards and I caught him right in between the legs. He goes down hard, and he’s laying on the ground, he’s not getting up. And I’m like — this is Friday before a game — I’m like, ‘This is it, I’m done.’ And he’s playing it off. He was fine. But I was like, ‘Get up right now before I get fired. Like, what are you doing?'”

While the phrase “one of a kind” often is thrown around carelessly, who’s willing to argue it doesn’t apply perfectly to Gronkowski?

Thumbnail photo via Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY Sports Images