By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- When the Patriots traded cornerback Keion Crossen to open up a roster spot for Gunner Olszewski in the summer of 2019, some folks wondered why Bill Belichick was going to such lengths to hang on to a Division II defensive back-turned-NFL wide receiver. Though it may have taken a little while, there's finally an answer.
It came on Sunday afternoon, during a 45-0 blowout victory for the Patriots over the Chargers, in which Olszewski was a bona fide star.
One week after having a punt return touchdown taken off the board due to an illegal block, Olszewski scored his first NFL touchdown on Sunday with a 70-yard punt return for a TD. Olszewski followed blocks by Matthew Slater and Donte Moncrief before bursting up the right sideline. He wasn't touched until the punter tapped him, and he avoided the final would-be tackler before tiptoeing along the boundary and into the end zone.
While the first career touchdown is automatically a huge moment in a player's life, Olszewski said he didn't have too much time to soak it in.
"Honestly my first thought was, I gotta go cover a kick now," Olszewski said. "So I better get my breath, and I gotta go cover on a kickoff."
That score was a big one, as it came when the game was still close. Much later in the game, when the victory was well in hand for the Patriots, Olszewski turned in a punt return that was arguably more impressive. On this one, Olszewski retreated to the Patriots' 24-yard line, catching the punt over his shoulder while moving toward his own goal line.
Olszewski then turned up field but didn't see any lanes, so he cut back to his right, avoided Slater, picked up another block by Moncrief, and negotiated himself a comfortable lane to once again break his return up the right sideline. He didn't score, but his 61-yard return set the Patriots up with a short field and an easy field goal.
While Belichick of course displayed his unique method of talent evaluation and player discovery in finding Olszewksi and keeping him on the roster for two years, the head coach didn't use Sunday's performance as an opportunity to gloat. Instead, in typical Belichick fashion, he spread the credit around to the entire special teams unit.
"Happy for Gunner. But you know, he got a lot of help on those plays as well. He did a good job on finishing the runs and making guys miss," Belichick said. "Those guys did a good job of getting him started, and he did a good job of finishing the plays."
Olszewski, a Texas native, likewise made sure to credit his blockers for making that return possible.
"I mean, I always want to go out there and do something with the ball when I get it. So I think today it just all happened right," Olszewski said. "The blocking was good, I hit the lane like I was supposed to, like we practiced. And things sometimes fall like that."
While the special teams plays helped ensure the Patriots would win the game, it was a play on offense -- with Jarrett Stidham under center -- that helped turn the game into a complete laugher.
On a second-and-9 midway through the fourth quarter and the Patriots leading 38-0, Stidham connected on a pass to Olszewski, after the receiver faked as if he was blocking for a receiver screen. From there, Olszewski once again took off for the end zone. He outran every blue jersey en route to a 38-yard touchdown reception -- the first of his career.
Olszewski's football story is fairly well known at this point, but for the uninitiated: He played defensive back at Division II Bemidji State and signed as an undrafted free agent in New England in the spring of 2019. His work ethic on the practice field was evident, which likely contributed to the Patriots making the move to trade Crossen and keep Olszewski.
His rookie season was cut short due to injuries, and his second season began with another IR stint. He struggled to make a positive impact in limited action in his first seven games before emerging with the punt return vs. Arizona. That was merely the warm-up to Sunday's performance, when Olszewski did just about everything.
In fact, after scoring that receiving touchdown, Olszewski was in on the tackle on the kickoff that followed. That's something that made Olszewski think of Julian Edelman -- a player with whom Olszewski is certain to be compared for quite some time.
"I had a tackle, too. Julian always talked about a game where he had a punt return and a tackle," Olszewski said, either referencing a Pats-Chiefs game from 2011 or a Pats-Colts game from 2012. "I follow Julian around quite a bit and try to do things that he did."
Given that unique background and path to the NFL, Belichick noted that Olszewski's performance stands out a bit more.
"Happy for him, obviously. His career is not the classic way of an NFL career, given where he came from," Belichick said. "Gunner's worked extremely hard and has overcome a lot. He's not a big guy, but he's got a big heart and he plays hard."
The hard work has been there from the moment Olszewski arrived in Patriots' camp and routinely made it a point to be the first player on the field (and often the last player off the field). Sunday's performance finally included the results that Belichick and Olszewski envisioned to be possible back in the summer of 2019.
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