FOXBORO, Mass. — The inspiring Gunner Olszewski story hit its first major roadblock Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium.
Olszewski, who enjoyed an unlikely and meteoric rise this summer from undrafted Division II product to New England Patriots punt returner, muffed a punt near his own goal line during the Patriots’ 30-14 win over the New York Jets.
The Jets pounced on the ball in the end zone, resulting in the first touchdown the Patriots had allowed this season.
“I called a fair catch, and I lost focus,” Olszewski said after the game. “I didn’t look it all the way in, and it went through my hands. Unacceptable. There’s no excuse for it.”
Roster spots are tenuous for players in Olszewski’s position, and the former Bemidji State standout was visibly distraught on the sideline following his miscue. He remained clearly frustrated with himself when he addressed reporters at his locker.
“They put me back there because they trust me,” Olszewski said, “and I just want to show them they can trust me in any situation, not just when we’re up by 30. Game on the line, I can go back there and I can catch the ball. … I’m going to learn from it, and it won’t ever happen again.”
The Patriots stuck with Olszewski after his muff, and his next punt return — an 11-yarder — was one of his best of the afternoon. The rookie fielded eight of Jets punter Lachlan Edwards’ nine boots without incident, absorbing frequent and heavy hits from New York’s coverage players.
“Sometimes running with the ball angry helps you a little bit,” he said. “But I’ve just got to prove to them that they can trust me and that it won’t happen again.”
Olszewski received support from his teammates both on the sideline following his mistake and in the locker room postgame. This came from all corners of the roster: offensive linemen Ted Karras and Marcus Cannon both were seen trying to boost the youngster’s confidence after his media scrum had dispersed.
“(We told him to) keep his head up,” said special teams captain Matthew Slater, who returned kickoffs early in his career. “We all support him, and we know what type of kid he is. He’s an asset to this football team. Everyone in this locker room has a lot of faith and confidence in him. And look, those mistakes happen. No one knows more about muffing balls as a returner than I do. So we support him, stay positive and just get ready for Buffalo.”
Said Olszewski: “They told me to pick my head up. We’ve got more game to play. And don’t let it happen again, pretty much.”
The Jets’ second touchdown was the result of another rookie mistake. On the third pass of his NFL career, first-year quarterback Jarrett Stidham overthrew running back Brandon Bolden, resulting in a 60-yard pick-six for safety Jamal Adams.