When the Patriots report to Foxborough next week, another season of Super Bowl contention seemingly at their fingertips, one member of the roster will be noticeably absent. Nate Ebner, a safety and special teamer drafted by New England in 2012, is headed south—very far south—to pursue Olympic gold in Rio as a member of the U.S. rugby team.
Ebner was named to the 12-man roster this week, the culmination of a fascinating, non-traditional career that was rooted in rugby and pivoted to football as a walk-on at Ohio State.
Ebner’s father, Jeff, played rugby in college and throughout his life, serving as the inspiration for Nate’s career that began when he was six years old. Ebner attended his father’s games and was a quick study, gradating from simply tossing a ball to intricately throwing it in a short time period.
Father and son were bonded by rugby, a torch Nate carries on for Jeff, who in 2008 was beaten to death during a robbery attempt. Nate was one month shy of his 20th birthday.
As Ebner prepares to fulfill his Olympic dream, he discussed some of the intricacies of rugby, what it was like asking Bill Belichick for permission and how his dad would have reacted to his son’s journey.
Melissa Jacobs: Describe the moment when you heard you were headed to Rio.
Nate Ebner: I had a lot of different emotions, to be honest. I was excited, happy and it was a dream come true. Also, I felt confirmation that I did give it everything I had and worked as hard as I could these last three-to-four months and especially these last five weeks during training camp. I literally put everything I had into this, and you wonder what the outcome is going to be. Then you see your name on that list, it’s confirmation that, Damn right, I did it, and that hard work pays off.
Those good feelings were met with feelings just as strong for guys who didn’t make the list. To see some of these other guys who have also put years into it, been in the grind, went through the pain I had to go through during this camp, to see them not make it was honestly heartbreaking. I just wish everyone could go. These dudes become brothers and they deserve it as much as anyone.
MJ: What’s the typical shelf life for a rugby player? Will some of those guys have a legitimate shot again in four years?
NE: Definitely. I assume some will have a chance. You have guys on this team who have been on this circuit for six years. Look at [full back/wing] Zach Test; I think this was his sixth season. He’s fighting to have as many tournament appearances as any player in the world. With that being said, the training camp and stuff we had to go through, it’s unlike anything I’ve had to go through before and you wonder what toll it takes on your body. We all respond differently, and some of us are lucky to stay relatively healthy.
MJ: You mention the physicality. What is the training that goes into rugby?
NE: It really overlaps with every sport if you think about it. Obviously football’s the most physical sport, hands down. But there is some violent hitting in rugby like in football at moments of the games. You’re running around like a soccer player. There are only seven people across the pitch the size of a soccer field, so your cardiovascular has to be at another level. We do all this sprint work because it’s not a long distance haul; we have to be explosive and powerful. We have the fastest rugby player in the world on our team, Carlin Isles, who ran a fast enough time to almost qualify for the 100 meters in the Olympics. In a way it’s like wrestling as well with the type of tackling we do in the breakdown areas. It’s all-encompassing physically and mentally, too, because you have to fight the little guy in your head saying, ‘You’ve had enough.’
MJ: Which is harder to train for: rugby or the NFL?
NE: It depends on what you find to be more difficult. Football is a lot of weight room and film study. The small details of things are very important. You have to have some serious patience with football.
With rugby, there’s not a lot of meetings but the physical requirement on your body, to get your body ready cardiovascular-wise, to play on the international level is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. I don’t know what athletes run the distances that we run in a week, and if they do they’re not hitting like we’re hitting. If they’re hitting, they’re not sprinting sprints like we’re sprinting. It’s all-encompassing.
We wear GPSs. There are some weeks, depending on the person, where we run 20–30 miles, and that’s not running in a circle on a track. That’s from playing the games—sprinting, cutting, accelerating, decelerating.
MJ: Because rugby is returning to the Olympics for the first time since 1924, and the first time ever as sevens, there will be a lot of spectators new to the sport. What should they look for to learn the game?
NE: More what they shouldn’t be watching. Don’t get too caught up in the breakdown stuff. When someone’s tackled and there’s a ref, don’t try to understand the penalty. Just accept it and don’t try to get overwhelmed with the rules because that’s the most confusing part of the game.
Things to watch are the backwards passing, the one-on-one movement when they get into space and can move around, and the kicking and drop kick conversions. It’s such an exciting game; there’s so much to watch for. Even defensively, guys work across the field, which is something to watch.
MJ: When you decided to walk on to the football team at Ohio State, how concerned were you that you’d be forced to pick one sport?
NE: It was a serious concern, a serious conversation I had with my dad before he passed. I had already carved out a decent career and was in the right direction with rugby. His biggest thing was he didn’t want to see me throw away my rugby career just to play at OSU. He thought I should aspire to pursue an NFL career, which is what I wanted. At the time I made the decision, I was willing to leave rugby in my rearview window. But that was with the understanding that football doesn’t last very long. You’re so lucky to make it last any amount of time. With that understanding, I knew I’d find my way back to rugby one way or another.
MJ: Are your Patriots teammates big rugby fans now?
NE: Somewhat. I’m hoping we get some serious takers the next couple weeks. But I’ve definitely brought awareness to my teammates, especially when we start throwing the ball around and I throw it like a rugby ball.
MJ: To pursue the Olympic dream you had to get permission from Bill Belichick. How was that conversation?
NE: To be honest, it was pretty personal. I don’t want to talk about it too much. Ultimately I really voiced my desires to go for this, that it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I really think that not only Bill, but the entire Patriots organization understands that I was a rugby player when they drafted me in 2012 and they understand this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I’m lucky enough that they gave me a chance—without that I wouldn’t even be here. To be able to do this and then go back to a first-class organization like that, I’m just blessed.
MJ: Now that you’ve enjoyed great success with both football and rugby, do you hope more athletes follow in your footsteps and try to pursue two sports?
NE: Young kids who are so worried about having success in football that they don’t pursue anything else will maybe now realize they can pursue other things. There are so many benefits to playing multiple sports. That’s something I truly believe. I’m not the first two-sport athlete, so I don’t want to make it sound like I am. I just hope kids see there’s definitely good things that can come from playing multiple sports. And putting your eggs in one basket, I don’t know if that’s the right decision. Play as many sports as possible and see what happens from there.
MJ: If your dad were still alive, what would he have said to you when he discovered you made the team?
NE: After speaking with my stepmom, his wife when he died, she probably said it best since she knew how he would react to my accomplishments better than me because he wouldn’t show me how he truly felt. He kept his guard up at all times. She said she thought for once in his life he’d be speechless. That was nice, and ultimately I hope he’d be overwhelmed with being a proud father. When you look at the path my life has taken, I think he’d get a kick at how it came back full circle.