Gunner Olszewski’s journey to New England began back in May with a phone call, inviting him to rookie minicamp, which came while he was literally digging ditches with his father back home in Alvin, Texas.
Saturday morning, he received another call, one that seemed to bury his dream of making the defending Super Bowl champions’ roster.
After a summer that saw him grow from a no-name Division 2 cornerback into one of the sentimental favorites of the preseason, Olszewski had been cut.
Sure he had a chance to get picked up by another team or signed to the Patriots’ practice squad, but for that moment, his Cinderella story seemed to have struck midnight.
Yet, as improbable as Olszewski’s journey had been up to that point, nothing could compare to the one last twist yet to come.
Hours after being informed that he was being waived, Olszewski received another stunning phone call. According to multiple reports, the Patriots had a change of heart after making their initial decision, opting to trade cornerback Keion Crossen to the Houston Texans to make room for Olszewski, the 22-year-old converted wide receiver and punt returner on the initial 53-man roster.
The dream was still alive.
Olszewski’s roller coaster Saturday was the capper on what was already one of the craziest stories of the preseason. Mere weeks ago the idea that he would be anywhere near contention for a roster spot would have seemed outlandish.
In every sense, Olszewski is about as far from a prototypical NFL player as you’ll find. At 6-feet-0, 190 pounds, he could easily be mistaken for any random person walking down the street.
Before coming to New England, he starred as a cornerback at Bemidji State, a Division 2 program in northern Minnesota that has only produced two other NFL players in its history.
Upon his arrival, he was tasked with switching from cornerback to wide receiver, and at first the general consensus among reporters was something to the effect of “who is this guy?”
But then he took the field, and he quickly began opening eyes.
After injuries piled up at the wide receiver position, Olszewski stepped in with the first team offense and held his own. He drew rave reviews from former Patriot cornerback Malcolm Butler — himself a former Division 2 cornerback — during joint practices with the Tennessee Titans.
Once the games began, Olszewski also separated himself as a returner, routinely making big plays to start the offense with good field position.
Olszewski finished the preseason as one of the league’s most productive return men, returning nine punts for 118 yards and four kickoffs for 95 yards. He also madefive catches on seven targets for 69 yards.
Eventually, he separated himself from top competitor Braxton Berrios, and in the fourth preseason game he was all over the field, playing offense, defense and special teams — a throwback to his high school days.
Speaking to the media Sunday, coach Bill Belichick spoke highly of Olszewski, saying that he’d earned his spot on the team.
“A lot of people like to pick the teams back in May and June, and who’s going to do what and all that,” said Belichick. “But we’ve always used training camp as a competitive period, an evaluation period, to let the players decide how that’s going to turn out based on their performance.
“The players that are on the team earn those spots. Nobody was given anything. It’s a competitive situation, and again, we took the players that we feel give us the most competitive team.”
Olszewski’s place on the roster isn’t assured. Given that it took a trade to get him on in the first place, he could be a roster casualty if the Patriots decide to make any subsequent moves in the future. But if this summer, and especially this weekend, has taught us anything, it’s don’t bet against Gunner Olszewski.
One of the other major surprises for the Patriots on cutdown day was the release of veteran wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. But Thomas isn’t expected to be gone for long.
Multiple reports indicate that the Patriots plan to re-sign Thomas after placing another player on injured reserve with a designation to return.
That hadn’t happened as of Sunday night, but potentially could in the days leading up to Sunday’s season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers.