How Gunner Olszewski went from D-II cornerback to catching passes from Tom Brady

Ryan Hannable
August 22, 2019 - 8:00 am
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Two weeks ago in Detroit, Gunner Olszewski was joking with Tom Brady on the sideline after the quarterback lost the coin toss.

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Last week in Tennessee, Olszewski was running with the Patriots first-team offense catching passes from Brady in a joint practice against the Titans.

Last year at this time, Olszewski was in Bemidji, Minnesota preparing for his senior year at Bemidji State University as a cornerback.

Yes, Olszewski has gone from being a D-II cornerback to now catching passes from the greatest quarterback of all time in training camp with the Patriots.

It’s been quite the ride, but for those who know him, they really aren’t surprised.

***

Olszewski played high school football in Alvin, Texas, which was close to the highest level in the state. He could have gone to a bigger school, and maybe even D-I, but he wanted to continue both his football and baseball careers. He settled on D-II Bemidji State University in Bemidji, Minnesota, which is roughly 2.5 hours from the Canadian border.

When he showed up on campus in the summer of 2015, he weighed just under 170 pounds and he was immediately mistaken for the water boy. But, after his first practice, it was quite clear he was more than just a water boy.

“One of the upperclassman came in (to my office) and he was like, ‘Holy [expletive], this kid is going to be an All-American,’” Bemidji head coach Brent Bolte recalled. 

The plan was to red-shirt him, but Olszewski didn’t give the coaching staff much choice — they had to play him.

“He instantly was so good and we were like, ‘We have to play this kid,’” defensive coordinator Rich Jahner said. “He looked so out of place and it was obvious, but all he did was lead the conference in interceptions. He was newcomer of the year and first-team all conference.”

As a freshman, he totaled 85 total tackles, while recording seven interceptions, including three in one game.

“He had phenomenal hands as a DB, probably the best hands on the team,” Bolte said.

Following the football season, his attention shifted to the baseball diamond where he started all 40 games he played and hit .327 with seven home runs and 30 RBI. Not bad for a player who didn’t hit a single homer in high school.

It was becoming clear, Bemidji had a star.

*** 

Olszewski could have probably played any position on the team, but the coaching staff decided to keep him at cornerback and as a punt returner.

“At the D-II level, if you have a corner who can erase a wide receiver, it’s pretty nice to have,” said Bolte. “That is why we kept him on that side.”

The move paid off. Olszewski had one of the best football careers a D-II player could have.

“When he stepped on the football field, he played like his hair was on fire,” Jahner said.

In his four years, he finished with 310 tackles, including 95 in his junior season. He also averaged 13.4 yards per punt return over his 69 total returns. As a senior, he was named the NSIC Defensive Player of the Year and started to receive some national attention.

Because of this, he bypassed his senior season in baseball to focus on football. Olszewski was invited to the University of Minnesota’s pro day where a number of scouts liked what they saw, but the question was where would he play?

At 5-foot-10, 180 pounds, the options were limited.

“I told every scout that came through, you look at him and he’s not the prototypical corner. I said he could play nickel if he got big enough to cover guys,” Bolte said. “Most of the guys looked at defense and special teams for him.”

But, there was one scout who had a different idea — the one who was there for the Patriots. He wanted him as a wide receiver and with that came an invitation to Patriots rookie minicamp.

Despite playing defensive his whole life, he was open to the change.

“They could say do this and he would be like, ‘Yes, sir. I will do it.’ He loves football,” Jahner said. “He’s not afraid of anything. If someone said he could be a professional fisherman he would be a professional fisherman.”

***

Olszewski officially signed with the Patriots on May 23 following an impressive showing in rookie minicamp. He then went back to Texas to prepare for training camp as a wide receiver.

He began working with a personal trainer and some wide receivers who have played the game at a high level. 

When he got to Gillette Stadium for training camp, he was at the bottom of the depth chart, but that didn’t bother him at all.

“He’s full of confidence. No fear. Fully believes in himself,” said Bolte.

The same attitude he had in college followed him to New England. In the training camp sessions he didn’t back down despite only a few months as a wide receiver. He wasn’t looking out of place in the least. 

“What is crazy is I think he’s just scratching the surface with what he could do because he’s really never trained football-wise for a whole year,” Jahner said. “As soon as he was done with football, he went onto baseball.”

While he’s still at the bottom of the wide receivers depth chart, he’s made the most of opportunities and has even returned punts during the second half of both preseason games thus far. The 22-year-old has two catches in the two games for 19 yards, but the most important thing is he’s looked like he belongs.

*** 

Back in Bemidji, he has the entire school behind him, and not just because of his skill on the field, but also his outgoing personality. 

“He was the life of the party for four straight years up here,” said Jahner. “He was on the football team, he was on the baseball team, so he knew everybody. He dated half the soccer team. He knew all the girls from the soccer team. There wasn’t a student on campus who didn’t know who Gunner Olszewski was.”

Even during a busy training camp as the Bemidji football team prepares for its season, the squad is taking time to follow Olszewski and his progress in New England. Last Saturday night, the coaching staff got the entire team together to watch the Patriots take on the Titans and see its star play in the second half.

“I think everyone is pulling for him,” Bolte said. “Just speaking football-wise, he’s arguably the best football player who has ever played here. Certainly, an outgoing personality where people were drawn to him.”

***

In two weeks, the Patriots and the rest of the NFL will need to cut down their rosters to 53 players and with the team getting back to full strength at the wide receiver position, it could mean Olszewski’s dream will come to an end.

But, not so fast. 

The former D-II cornerback seems like the perfect practice squad player and his former coaches agree.

“He would be the perfect squad player,” said Bolte. “No. 1, he could play both ways. He can return kicks, he can play receiver, he can go over and play DB, he can work on punt and kick return stuff. I think he would cherish that.” 

Jahner added: “My guess would be he will have impressed enough people to stay on the practice squad until he finds a way to make it.”

With Bemidji being in the state of Minnesota, they are very familiar with Adam Thielen, a wide receiver ffor the Vikings who spent extensive time on their practice squad before working his way up and now being one the best receivers in the NFL.

“To me, Gunner will be another Adam Thielen,” Jahner said.

While Bolte wouldn’t go that far, he knows better not to doubt Olszewski.

"If I had to pick one guy, and I have been coaching here for 20 years, he’s going to find a way in some way shape or form to get on a 53-man roster some day,” he said. “He works that hard and should be able to do it.”

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