If you hadn't been one of the heroes, what moments would you most remember from Brady-Manning XIV, I asked New England's Nate Ebner late Monday night. If he hadn't made the play on which the game hinged, if the second-year special teams commando hadn't fallen on the muffed punt that allowed New England to complete the biggest comeback in franchise history, what would've stuck with you?
Ebner disagreed with the premise that he'd done anything special. I could almost see him wincing when I used the h-word. "I just did what my job entailed," said the 24-year-old ex-Ohio State Buckeye. "A ton of guys made plays. That was the real takeaway -- the fight we showed, the way our team never quit."
Wow, a self-effacing, willfully bland, praise-deflecting team-first guy on Bill Belichick's roster -- what were the chances?
Here's the other element Ebner says he'll always remember from last Sunday night in Foxboro: the elements. "That was one of the coldest games I've ever been in."
The wind chill was six degrees, although it felt colder to a special teamer like Ebner, who had to stand there and shiver in his cape because the Pats barely punted in the first half. They kept fumbling instead.
No offense to Ebner, but when he notes that Sunday night was one of the coldest games he's been in, he's not saying that much. We're not talking about a huge sample size here. This is a guy who didn't play college ball until his third year at Ohio State, as a walk-on.
Was he one of those preferred walk-ons that the coaches have their eyes on, ahead of time? No. Ebner told me he made the team in a tryout with a hundred other wannabes. And why were the Buckeye coaches unfamiliar with him? Because he didn't play high school football. Yet I would venture to say that Ebner had more tackles during his time at Hilliard Davidson High, in suburban Columbus, than any other schoolboy in the Buckeye State. It's just that no one was counting them.
Ebner was an international-class rugby player, one of the top young Americans in the game. As a 16-year-old he was selected to play for the USA Rugby Boys U-19 squad that played in the world championships in Dubai. By the time he graduated high school, Ebner had played all over the world.
Once he was an undergrad at Ohio State, however, the international travel wasn't feasible anymore. The collegiate and club-level rugby he was playing was a comedown for him. Looking for a greater challenge, he walked on to the football team. He knew how to put on shoulder pads. After all, he'd played as recently as junior high. "I was all right at tackling, from rugby, but I had no clue about was happening on defense," he says. "Schemes, reading keys -- I was so far behind. One thing I knew I could do, though, was run under kickoffs."
He was so fast -- at six feet, 205 pounds, he ran a 4.48 40 -- and so instinctive at finding the football that the Buckeye coaches had to get him on the field. Ebner became a special teams standout. Going against the grain, as usual, the Patriots left draftniks scratching their heads when they took him in the sixth round two years ago.
But Buckeyes assistant and ex-Patriot Mike Vrabel had given Belichick and his staff the down-low on Ebner, a tough, hard-working, relentless quick study with a big upside. Ebner had a strong camp, and made the club outright. His 17 special teams tackles were second-most on the team last season. He wasn't credited for a tackle against the Broncos, which is strange, because there he is on New England's first punt in overtime, streaking up the middle of the field, beating his blocker, Mike Adams, then taking Wes Welker out at the shins with a swipe of his left arm.
In a game that had "tie" written all over it, the Patriots punted a second time -- Denver also punted twice -- with just over three minutes to play in OT. New England appeared to have the gusting wind at its back, but the left-footed Ryan Allen's punt seemed to stall at its apex. On the replay, the ball hangs in the air, confounding Welker, who at the last instant tried to wave off his teammates, calling out "Peter! Peter!" A lot of teams use the warning "Poison" in that circumstance. The meaning is the same: Head for the hills, here comes the ball, and if it touches you, it's live.
It touched poor Tony Carter, caroming off the turf, glancing off his right hip on the short hop. "I was hoping it wasn't the ball," said Carter afterward, somewhat endearingly -- because, really, what else could it have been? A brown, pebble-grained handbag flung from the stands? Carter must now wear that "muff" around his neck like an albatross, but it was Welker who screwed up, waiting until far too late to make the "Peter" call.
Ebner plays on every special team. On punts, he's Allen's personal protector. After making sure no one leaked past the line of scrimmage to threaten a block, he was free to "cover down" -- his expression for hauling ass up the middle of the field.
Marquice Cole arrived a step ahead of him, pushing Carter backward, and into the path of the bouncing ball, upon which Ebner gratefully pounced, on the 13-yard-line. New England ran two plays, then sent kicker Stephen Gostkowski out to win the game.
"I was in the right place at the right time," concluded the chronically modest Ebner. And he's right: there wasn't anything that special about the recovery. See ball, fall on ball, curl into fetal position around ball. Of much greater interest is the journey that led him to that right place.