FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Gunner Olszewski hasn’t caught a pass in a football game since high school.
Yet, here was the former Bemidji State cornerback snagging throws from Tom Brady at New England Patriots minicamp earlier this month.
How did the undrafted rookie go from Bemidji to the 90-man roster of the Super Bowl champions?
“It’s a dream come true,” Olszewski said. “That’s all I can really say.”
Olszewski dazzled on defense and special teams alike in his four years as a Beaver. Named All-American and Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference Defensive Player of the Year in 2018, Olszewski left BSU with 310 career tackles and 13 interceptions, along with 1,331 all purpose yards and one punt return touchdown.
That earned him an invite to the University of Minnesota’s pro day in late March, where he caught the eye of the Patriots. Having gone undrafted, New England eventually invited him to try out at the team’s rookie minicamp in early May.
Olszewski returned home to Alvin, Texas, for a week not knowing if his football career was finished.
But then one afternoon, his phone rang.
Olszewski had a spot on the Patriots waiting for him. All he had to do was catch a flight that departed for Boston in barely an hour.
“(They) were just pretty much like, ‘You got a plane ticket heading up to Boston. Be on that flight,’” Olszewski recalled. “And it was awesome. My family was over. We were having steaks that night. But we ended up not having steaks, just getting on a plane and eating airport food, which I was very happy doing.”Position change
Olszewski made his first appearance at an OTA (organized team activity) practice May 23 wearing a No. 72 jersey. Though Olszewski won’t be a lineman, he will be playing a new position: wide receiver.
“They just kind of told me that’s where I’d be going,” he said. “I was all for it. I don’t have any room to tell them, like, ‘Naw, I’m not a receiver.’ I told them I’d do whatever they need me to do. I just want to do whatever I can to help this team. And if they think it’s at receiver, then that’s where I’m happy to be at.”
Standing at six feet tall and 170 pounds, Olszewski is admittedly small for an NFL receiver. His stature and speed have inevitably led to comparisons to another undersized receiver: teammate and reigning Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman.
Olszewski has been watching Edelman with a keen eye on picking up the kind of skills that have set him apart as an NFL receiver.
“Like in high school, I could have played receiver,” Olszewski said. “I’m fast, they just throw me the ball and I catch it and run. In college, I think I could have done it, too. It’s probably a little simpler than it is up here. But when you get to the NFL, you’ve got to know every little thing about the route you’re doing and why you’re doing it.
“… But the little things I’ve learned mostly is just play fast. You’ve got to play with confidence and you’ve got to play fast. When you hear the plays, you’ve got to go out there and do it.”
Fans in his native Texas got a brief glimpse of Olszewski at receiver. As a high school junior, Olszewski caught one touchdown pass from older brother -- and future BSU teammate -- E.J. Olszewski. A broken hand, however, quickly put an end to his time at the position.
Fast forward a few years and Olszewski is suddenly on the receiving end of Tom Brady spirals.
“It’s kind of tough almost to not sit there and be like, ‘Whoa, this is Tom Brady,’” Olszewski said. “I’ve just gotta look at him as he’s the quarterback, I’m the receiver. I run the routes and he throws me the ball. It’s just football at the end of the day. But it’s definitely a cool experience for sure.”Putting Bemidji on the map
As one of 90 players contending for a spot on the final 53-man roster, Olszewski knows he has to learn on the fly.
“I can’t look like I’ve never played receiver before,” he said. “I’ve got to look like I’ve been playing it my whole life. That’s pretty much what I’m trying to do. It’s a great group of guys that are here at the receiver position, in that receiver meeting room, that I can learn from. They’ve all been very helpful.”
The Patriots completed OTAs earlier this week and will not reconvene until training camp opens in late July. In the meantime, Olszewski says he’ll stay in New England and work to be in the best shape of his life.
“People ask me how I’m doing and my response is always the same,” the 22-year-old rookie said. “I just say, ‘Living the dream.’ … I still sit there when they give us our paychecks and can’t believe that somebody’s paying me to do this because I just love it so much. And I would probably do it for free.”
The newest Patriot has quickly become a fan favorite.
“It feels like a good fit up here with me,” Olszewski said. “Being a Patriot, it almost seems like this is the only way it could’ve turned out if I really think about it. But yeah, they like guys like me: the underdog that has a chip on his shoulder and wants to prove everybody wrong.”
Bemidji will always have a special place in Olszewski’s heart.
“I’ve still got my little gold Beaver necklace that I wear every day,” Olszewski said. “People kind of poke fun at that, but I’m real proud of where I came from. And I think it just makes it a better story.”
Bemidji was where Olszewski earned a chance to prove himself on the gridiron, as well as the baseball diamond, playing three seasons at catcher and in the outfield for BSU.
Oddly enough, Bemidji was also the birthplace of his grandfather, from whom he received his middle name -- Gunner.
“I say, ‘I’m Texas raised, and Bemidji made.’ Because Bemidji is a big part of what made me who I am today,” Olszewski said. “I think I learned so much up there really just growing up. I sure am proud of where I came from and I hope to make Bemidji proud of me, as well.”
If Olszewski makes the cut and takes the field for the Patriots this fall, he’d become just the third Beaver to ever play in the NFL. Running back Al Wolden played three games for the Chicago Bears in 1987, and tight end Brian Leonhardt appeared in 16 games for the Oakland Raiders and San Francisco 49ers in the 2014 and 2015 seasons.
Olszewski said he wouldn’t have made it to the NFL without his BSU teammates. They’ve become Pats fans, just like others in New England, Minnesota and Texas have in recent weeks.
“They’re telling me now that they’re Patriots fans and I’m like, ‘Well y’all boys better be,’” Olszewski said. “Those Sundays in there in the locker room after weights, I hope they have the Patriots game on and hopefully they see me out there putting Bemidji on the map.”