RIO DE JANEIRO – When the New England Patriots’ season ended in Denver last winter, special teams standout Nate Ebner returned home with a tough choice to make.
He had to decide whether it was worth jeopardizing his NFL career to chase his dream of making the U.S. Olympic rugby sevens team.
Ebner was smart enough to recognize that committing to rugby would require more concessions from the Patriots than just allowing him to skip a few offseason workouts and the start of training camp. Since sevens is a faster, more wide-open version of traditional 15-man rugby, Ebner knew he’d need to spend the summer shedding muscle and slimming down significantly from his ideal football weight.
“It was a tough decision to make, but at the end of the day, when you see a sport in the Olympics that you grew up playing your whole life, how can you not want to be part of that?” Ebner said. “It was eating me up a little bit. I just didn’t want to live with the regret of not trying. I didn’t want to have to think about what that experience would have been like if I could have made that team.”
Ebner’s decision to take leave from the Patriots has so far worked out as well as he could have possibly hoped. Not only did he overcome long odds to make the 12-man USA Rugby squad last month, he also has received nothing but support and encouragement from the Patriots.
Coach Bill Belichick told reporters in Massachusetts last Wednesday that he wished Ebner well in Rio and that he’s pulling for the 27-year-old Ohio native to “bring back something around his neck.” Special-teams captain Matthew Slater also expressed support the following day, taking the field wearing Ebner’s No. 43 jersey instead of his customary No. 18.
“That was pretty awesome,” Ebner said. “It says so much about not only him but the organization and the type of people they bring in that truly care about each other. Matt is a first-class dude. He got my mom all emotional about that.”
While football has been Ebner’s sole focus as an adult, he’s certainly no rugby novice. Rugby was Ebner’s childhood love, a passion he shared with his father.
Jeff Ebner, a former rugby player at the University of Minnesota, groomed Nate to become one of American rugby’s best young prospects. The elder Ebner lifted weights with his son, took him to men’s club practices in Ohio and even coached his high school team, helping mold Nate into an All-American with Ohio State’s club team and an MVP of USA Rugby’s Junior World Cup team.
The desire for a new challenge and bigger stage led Ebner to quit rugby and walk on to the Ohio State football team as a junior. It was a tough decision made even more difficult by his father’s 2008 murder while trying to fend off a robber at the family’s auto reclamation yard.
Channeling his anger and sadness into football, Ebner blossomed into a special-teams dynamo at Ohio State. He was drafted in the sixth round by the Patriots in 2012, largely for his ability to charge downfield and waylay kick returners like a heat-seeking missile.
Ebner carved out a niche with the Patriots and contributed to a Super Bowl-winning team, but rugby never strayed far from his thoughts. He stayed in contact with USA Rugby officials, trained with a rugby team back home in Ohio during the offseason and even infamously attempted a rugby-style onside kick against the Philadelphia Eagles last season.
With rugby returning to the Olympics this summer after a 92-year hiatus, Ebner decided the time was right to make his return. Upon receiving approval from the Patriots this spring, he began practicing with the USA Rugby team in hopes of making the Olympic roster.
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“The first few practices were really tough,” Ebner said. “I felt really strong and explosive for the first 30 seconds and then I’ve never felt so weak and worthless within minutes of that. My legs felt like I was running in cement or mud.”
Gradually rugby got easier for Ebner. The rust vanished, the excess muscle melted away and he regained the speed and quickness that he possessed as a youth.
While rugby is nowhere near as popular in America as it is elsewhere around the world, Ebner’s successful bid to make the U.S. team has helped shine a spotlight on the sport’s return to the Olympics. His presence at Wednesday’s USA Rugby news conference attracted a horde of reporters who might not ordinarily have attended.
Making that sort of impact is meaningful to Ebner, but his main goal is success on the rugby field. The Americans are considered dark-horse medal contenders in an Olympic tournament that also features rugby sevens powers Fiji, South Africa and New Zealand.
Asked how he thought winning an Olympic medal would compare to a Super Bowl ring, Ebner chuckled.
“Hopefully you can get back to me in a couple weeks,” he said.
With the NFL season starting less than a month after the Olympic rugby competition ends Aug. 11, Ebner won’t have much time to add the muscle he has lost and get back to football shape. He admits it won’t be easy but also dismisses it as a problem for another day.
“Right now I’m all in with the U.S. rugby team, and that’s all I’m thinking about,” Ebner said. “That’s the type of person I am. I’m going to give this team everything I have.”
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