FOXBORO, Mass. — One day after his regular-season NFL debut, Gunner Olszewski sported a nasty, bluish-red bruise that stretched across his pale nose and crept toward his right eye.
Underneath it was a wide, toothy smile.
Even a broken nose — caused by an errant Ryan Switzer forearm Sunday night — couldn’t damper Olszewski’s enthusiasm after he ripped off punt returns of 20 and 15 yards during the New England Patriots’ 33-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers at Gillette Stadium.
“I said the preseason was the most fun time of my life,” the undrafted rookie receiver/return man said at his locker Monday afternoon. “In my eyes, I played four NFL football games. But I didn’t expect the jump to be what it was. Just with the fans and everything out there, I actually got goosebumps. And I was like, ‘Chill out, man. You’ve played four games already.’ Even though they were preseason. But it was surreal. It really was.”
Olszewski’s performance in the return game this summer earned him an unexpected spot on New England’s 53-man roster and convinced head coach Bill Belichick to slide him into Julian Edelman’s usual spot as the team’s primary punt returner. Though he was told Edelman could be used in that role against the Steelers, Olszewski wound up handling all five Pittsburgh punt without incident.
“Really the only thing that I’m doing right now has been the special teams, so every third down, I’m out there waiting for them to say, ‘Gunner, go,’ ” Olszewski said. “And then I’m out there like, ‘Let’s go, man.’ ”
After calling for a fair catch on his first return, Olszewski found room to run on his second. Reading blocks from cornerbacks Jonathan Jones and J.C. Jackson, he fielded Kameron Canaday’s punt at his own 18-yard line and sprinted straight upfield, evading a diving Roosevelt Nix before front-flipping over Tyler Matekevich at the 38.
“I just saw green grass,” Olszewski said. “Our guys up front left a pile in front of the punter, so all those (coverage players) were stuck back there, so I saw that before he got the ball off, and our guys on the corners locking up the gunners did an excellent job of widening those guys. The name of the game is just to get vertical as quick as you can, so I caught it, saw green grass, got vertical and got what I could.”
Olszewski’s full-speed-ahead approach was evident on his second runback, as well. One sidestep allowed him to evade gunner Johnny Holton, and he quickly gobbled up 15 yards, with Jackson again providing a key block.
“I think that’s what always kind of worked for me in college, too,” said Olszewski, who starred as a cornerback and returner at Division II Bemidji State. “Because the guys are running at me, and the last thing they expect is for me to run full speed right back at them. A lot of guys kind of dance back there and stuff, but I just try put the pressure on them, run right at them and get every last yard I can.”
That mentality has endeared Olszewski to Patriots fans and teammates alike and earned him favorable comparisons to Edelman, who initially made his name on special teams after joining the Patriots as a seventh-round draft pick in 2009.
As for the nose? Olszewski isn’t worried about it. He broke it while attempting to tackle Switzer on a kickoff midway through the third quarter but stayed in the game and said it won’t hinder him moving forward.
“It’s a nose, man,” he said. “You don’t need it to run or anything like that.”
Thumbnail photo via Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY Sports Images