When it comes to ringing bells, 14-year-old Jake Drake has some good experience on his resume.
His first opportunity came after finishing his cancer treatment at Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children, and his second while serving as Keeper of the Light for the New England Patriots at their Crucial Catch game against the New Orleans Saints.
"Jake is the man," said retired Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, who on Thursday surprised Jake with the invitation to participate in New England's newest pre-game tradition.
"He's such a great kid, such a nice kid, and he definitely deserves everything he's getting in this package here this weekend. I can't wait to see him ring that bell before the Patriots game and get the whole crowd fired up."
Jake was diagnosed with low grade glioma, a cancerous brain tumor, in December of 2022.
The news was a shock, and as Jake spent the next 10 days in the hospital, his parents went into autopilot to support him and his two younger siblings.
"We were in a fog," said Jake's father, Brian.
"It was shocking how much it affected the entire family. That was the big takeaway for me and the whole experience, besides how blessed we are to be in the right place at the right time with the right people. We got very lucky. But it really took a toll on all the members of the family, and we've been climbing back ever since."
Thursday certainly helped with that.
The Drake family came into contact with the Make-A-Wish foundation, who encouraged Jake to dream big with his ask.
His definition of big? A day with 6-foot-6, future Hall of Famer, Rob Gronkowski.
"It's been my dream to be like him since I was little," said Jake, who is a Patriots fan, despite being raised in Florida.
"He really inspired me through all the times I've seen him play, and then once I read a book about what he did during college and everything he went through it kind of reminded me of myself because I went through surgery, I had to take a lot of time off of school and stuff. So this was very exciting."
Make-A-Wish and the Patriots Foundation made the arrangements to fly Jake, his parents, and two siblings to New England.
They met up with Rob at Splitsville in Patriot Place for bowling and Zombie dodgeball, with Jake taking full advantage of the opportunity to ask him a ton of questions. The great big brother he is, Jake made sure his brother and sister got just as much attention as he did.
"Jake was telling me that I was his hero growing up and that he loved watching me – that I inspired him. But let me tell you this, Jake inspired me just to see how he carried himself," said Rob.
"He's 14 years old. He's been through so much in life already. He just keeps on fighting every day, day in and day out. What's so special about him, too, is that it's not even about him. It was about his parents. He wanted his parents involved. He wanted his little brother involved. He wanted his little sister involved so they could feel the whole experience as well. On top of that, I'm signing pictures for them, and he's asking me to sign cards for his buddies. Everything he's going through, he's thinking about his friends and is looking to give back even though he's been through so much."
Over the course of a few hours, Rob got to know Jake pretty well. He learned how the teenager kept up great grades in school despite his diagnosis, about his love for sports, and about his musical ability.
"I love that he has great grades, he's so intelligent, and he spoke so highly of his family and friends," Rob said.
"Just seeing that characteristic and having that strength is incredible. He plays three instruments, the violin, the saxophone, and the piano. Just to play one instrument is incredible, you have to be super smart, and he plays all three and keeps up great grades. That's why he inspires me."
Before the day concluded, Rob had one more surprise for Jake, inviting him to ring the bell before the Patriots Week 5 matchup alongside former players Joe Andruzzi and Marcus Cannon – who've both had their own bouts with cancer.
From there, the excitement just intensified.
"It's been a wonderful thing for all three of them," Jackie said.
"Obviously, we think Jake is a very special kid – we've always thought that – but he's been through a lot and has a lot of compassion. He has a better understanding that everybody is going through their own journey, and some journeys are more difficult than others. He has a better understanding of that than most 14-year-olds because of everything he's been through. I wish he could have gotten that understanding another way, but we're really proud of him. We're proud of all three of them. They've been through the wringer and this was so great."
The Drake children, especially Jake, have had to grow up quick – the unfortunate reality of a childhood cancer diagnosis.
But on Thursday, their innocence returned, even if for just a weekend. As much fun as Jake and his siblings had, the day did a lot for Jackie and Brian as well.
"To make this happen and to put those smiles on him, his brother, and sister's face, I haven't seen smiles like that in quite some time," Brian said.
"I know they're not thinking about all the real-life stuff that moms and dads have to think about all the time, and that's a gift. You can't put a price on that. I don't know what it will be like for them a month from now, but they'll never be able to get rid of that memory."
Former Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski was back in town to grant a Make-A-Wish Massachusetts and Rhode Island for 14-year-old Florida resident and cancer survivor Joseph "Jake" Drake on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023. Gronkowski met Jake and his family at Splitsville Luxury Lanes at Patriot Place, where they bowled, played games and got to know each other. Jake will back at the stadium on Sunday, where he'll have a VIP gameday experience including being only the third-ever "Keeper of the Light," ringing the bell atop the new lighthouse in the end zone ahead of kickoff.