Brent Bolte got the bad news right before practice. The head coach of Bemidji State football had followed all summer as Gunner Olszewski, one of the greatest players in the Division 2 program's history, competed for a spot with the New England Patriots. Bolte knew it was a longshot, but when he and the team heard Olszewski had been cut, they couldn't help but speculate on what might come next.
They never could have predicted the twist yet to come. Hours later after wrapping up practice, the coaches were in the facility together watching film when everyone's phones suddenly started blowing up. One of the texts came from an elated Olszewski – he had made the team after all.
"It was a pretty exciting scenario for him and a crazy story, which is right in line with everything else that's happened to him," said Bolte, who is entering his fourth season as Bemidji State's head coach and his 20th on the coaching staff overall. "Kind of a fairy tale type of scenario. So it's been a wild ride."
Bolte has been following Olszewski's journey to the NFL from the beginning. Four years ago, when he was Bemidji State's defensive coordinator, he first met the electric but undersized cornerback and return man on a recruiting trip to Alvin, Texas. He could see right away the skills and personality that would set him apart.
"He was this little 140-something-pound safety/corner out of high school who did punt returns and kick returns, he played option quarterback when he was younger too, so you saw exactly what we got when he got here," Bolte said. "He's a guy who gave relentless effort and flew around, and when you got to meet him on a recruiting trip and got to know him a little bit better, he had an infectious personality, kind of an 'it factor' with that where guys gravitate towards him."
From the moment Olszewski arrived on Bemidji State's campus, the coaching staff knew he was different. The first practice they ruled out redshirting him, and throughout the summer the feedback from the other players and coaches was the same — "this kid is unbelievable."
He was immediately a star from the opening game and never slowed down.
"He was a four-year starter, a four-year All-Conference player, All-American Freshman Team, and never really had a bad practice or a bad game," Bolte said. "He just freaking worked his butt off."
Beyond his skills on the gridiron, Olszewski also stood out by being authentically himself. Bolte described him as "completely an open book as it comes" and a guy who wasn't afraid to say exactly what was on his mind, traits that endeared himself to his coaches and teammates even as he occasionally stuck out like a sore thumb on the northern Minnesota campus.
"You see him walking around campus he's got his tattered blue jeans on, his cowboy boots on, usually a wife beater, and that's him. He's just this bumpkin from back home," Bolte said. "He won every award when he was here at BSU, but my stories about him are the ones about him in the locker room and just being the heartbeat of our team. He was well loved and well respected because of how hard he worked, and that's just a commonality throughout his experience at BSU."
By his senior year, Olszewski ranked among the top players in the nation at the Division 2 level. He was the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference's Defensive Player of the Year, a First Team All-American and graduated as the program's all-time leader in punt return yardage and solo tackles. Bolte considered him probably the best defensive skill position player in program history, but he worried his size would hold him back from getting a shot at the next level.
But at the same time, he knew that if Olszewski was given an opportunity, he would run with it.
"He's a phenomenal punt returner, he has this fearless edge to him, so those are all things that from my standpoint, skill-wise and his ability to accelerate his movement is unbelievable," Bolte said. "But it's all about getting that opportunity, getting with the right organization, and certainly the Patriots have shown that over the years taking risks and finding players from different positions and different places, so it worked out awesome for him to get that opportunity there."
Patriots coach Bill Belichick described Olszewski's journey as a long, winding road with some twists and turns in it, but said he's earned his spot on the team and has a great opportunity ahead of him. This Sunday, Olszewski is expected to take the field in his pro debut — becoming just the third Bemidji State player in program history to play in an NFL game — and he very well may be the first Patriots player to touch the ball this season should New England receive the opening kickoff against the Steelers.
Who knows what might happen from there, but Bolte isn't betting against Olszewski.
"Don't be surprised, I think he'll end up making an impact beyond being on the 53, I think he'll help win football games at that level," Bolte said. "Nothing surprises me about that kid. He's something else."
Mac Cerullo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Mac on Twitter at @MacCerullo.