The Pursuit of Happiness: Nate Ebner
Nate Ebner knew he had a difficult choice. As a safety and special teams player for the New England Patriots, Ebner’s fearlessness and commitment were rewarded this past offseason with a two-year, $2.4 million contract. But when he learned that rugby—the sport he grew up playing—would be making its Olympic debut in Rio this summer, he found himself dreaming about becoming a member of Team USA.
“You hear a sport that you’ve played your whole life is going to be in Olympics, the pinnacle of athleticism,” Ebner says. “How can you not want a taste of that?” During the NFL off-seasons, Ebner would play touch rugby just to stay close to the game without jeopardizing his pro football career. But for Ebner, the Olympics was the equivalent of a rugby Super Bowl.
“I thought about it so much, it would keep me up awake at night,” Ebner says. “What would it be like not to be part of that team? I’d live with that regret every day if I didn’t give it a shot. I couldn’t just cop out and go for the money. To watch it at home and not be a part of it? I couldn’t live with myself. If I didn’t make the team, I’d still sleep well. But not trying? No way.”
Ebner spoke to his coaches and the team, and asked if he could be given permission to follow his dream and try out for the Olympic team. The Patriots, perhaps to the surprise of the NFL given their singular focus on football, gave him their blessing. “It’s a big ask to put a team that everyone puts first in their lives on the backburner to go do something else,” he says. “I had to come forward and be honest with where my heart was. I think they understood it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me.”
But Ebner still had the daunting task of proving he was one of the best rugby players in the US after having moved away from the game at Ohio State University—a choice that was nearly as difficult as the one he had to make this summer.
At 16, Ebner made the under-19 team that played in the world championships. He played in the world championships again the following year. But at Ohio State, Ebner could only play club rugby. “I was going up against some kids that had never even played before,” he says. “There really wasn’t much of a challenge there. But I had promised my parents that I was going to get my degree, so I was trapped at Ohio State in a kind of limbo. That’s when the NFL dream first entered my head.”
Though Ebner’s parents divorced when he was three, they both remained amicable and were deeply supportive of him. It was Ebner’s father, Jeff, a former rugby player at the University of Minnesota, who taught his son the game when Nate was six years old. “By the time I was seven, I was already passing with both hands,” he says. “In the ‘90s, there weren’t as many kids playing rugby as there are now. Back then, there was hardly anyone my age playing. The first true rugby game I played in was a rugby B-side game. I was 13, playing against men in their 20s, and in some cases, their late 30s.”
Ebner remembers the game vividly. Still barely 5 feet 4 inches tall and under 140 pounds, he can remember the other players wanting to see if he would dare to step in and tackle.
“No one was going to take it easy on me,” he says. “Once you step on the field, you’re fair game. The first time a guy caught the ball near me, there was a lot of space between us, and I could tell he was licking his chops, because he was going to try to run me over. I shoelaced him and got him down though. Once other guys realized that I could get them down, I earned their respect.”
Ebner and his father would often play in games together. As Nate got older, their relationship was more akin to best friends than father and son. “He would train with me all the time,” Ebner says. “In the garage gym, when I was five, I would bench press a broomstick. My dad wouldn’t let me use any weight until I could press that broomstick with perfect form.”
Ebner would compete with his dad in just about anything. “We played tons of squash,” he says. They would even have standing broad jump competitions in the driveway. “Little did I know that I was preparing myself for my pro day that far back. My dad once told me, if you can do 10 feet, that’s a good jump. On my pro day, I did 10 feet 8 inches.”
Growing up, Ebner would spend every other weekend and entire summers with his father, who owned a salvage yard. “He spent more time with me than he really even needed to,” Ebner recalls. “He absolutely hated baseball. But he would come to my games and watch me bat. And as soon as I would finish hitting, he’d open up the newspaper again (laughs). There was a time when I was living in Cincinnati with my mom, and he was living in Springfield, which is about an hour-and-fifteen-minute drive. He would drive to the house just to have dinner with me and then drive home. That’s two and a half hours of driving each night just for dinner.”
On November 12, 2008, Ebner called his father and told him he was thinking about trying out for football at Ohio State. Ebner had toyed with the idea of playing football during his senior year at Hilliard Davidson High School, but decided against it. He couldn’t see himself swooping in and trying to wrest a starting position from seniors who had dedicated their high school careers to the team. The school would go on to win Ohio’s Division-I state championship that year, an experience in retrospect he wished he could experience.
He talked it over with his father and Jeff Ebner supported him trying out for the football team on one condition—that Nate would give it his all. No club rugby on the side. No other distractions. He needed to put his heart and soul into his NFL dream and give it his maximum effort. Nate agreed and promised his dad that he would. It would be the last conversation they would ever have. The following day, a man attempting to steal from the salvage yard assaulted Jeff Ebner. At age 53, still full of life, Jeff Ebner died in the hospital from head injuries sustained in the attack. His attacker is currently serving 15 years to life in prison.
Nate Ebner was supposed to play rugby with his dad that weekend. Instead he had to deliver the eulogy at his father’s funeral. He spent weeks inside the house, sitting in the darkness of the family’s media room. His mom, Nancy, encouraged him to get back outside. She told him that his father would want him to live his life to the fullest.
“In a way, football was really there when I needed it,” Ebner says. “I needed something else to focus on. Football allowed me to get all my anger and aggression out on the field.” When Ebner showed up at football walk-on tryouts at Ohio State, there were about 80 students total. “These aren’t the kids that Ohio State is trying to recruit, but don’t have scholarships to offer,” Ebner says. “These are real walk-ons. Half the guys there were wearing their favorite player’s jerseys. There were guys wearing tennis shoes there.”
The tryout had more of a combine feel to it—bench presses, sprints, vertical leaps. After the tryout, 15 players were selected for an additional two weeks of walk-on workouts. “To this day, those were some of the toughest workouts I’ve ever done,” Ebner says, “because they were trying to provide you with a reason to quit. Those 15 players got to seven real quick.”
Ebner recalls four players total making the team from the workouts and only one other player making it to their senior season with him. “I just kept my head down, stuck to the plan, and made it past the tryout,” he says. “The first game of the season, I ran down on kickoff, and got on every kickoff after that. I played in every game I was on the team at Ohio State.”
Despite his willingness to sacrifice for the team, Ebner realized he still had a lot to learn about the game. “I was humbled by how much I didn’t know,” he says. “I was a little arrogant to think that I could pick it up at the drop of a hat. It was a lot—offensive formations, personnel groupings, dime and nickel packages. So much goes into it that I didn’t know about it. Special teams was the way for me to get on the field. Just don’t get blocked.”
Ebner made it to the field for three defensive snaps his collegiate career. “I did get a sack on one of them,” he’s quick to add. But between his special team performance on the field, and his stellar combine numbers at his pro day, he drew interest from NFL teams as a mid-to-late round pick.
“I just wanted to make it on a practice squad and get a chance to work my butt off,” Ebner says. “Luckily, it was more than that and I got drafted by the Patriots in the sixth round.
If there was ever a university that could prepare you for the NFL, it was Ohio State. It’s very demanding of its athletes. It’s a hard place to play. Guys quit every year. I was the type of character mold the Patriots were looking for, so I naturally fit in, but the learning curve is really steep. How many hours can you spend talking about football? I learned quickly; you can spend all day talking about it. Either learn this stuff, or you are on special teams, and everyone in the NFL can play special teams. I got called on just as much my rookie year in the NFL to play safety as I did in my entire college career, and in big games. You’ve got to learn it or drown and get kicked out.”
The fact that Ebner appreciates how fragile an NFL career is, how difficult it is to get there and how even more difficult it is to stay there, made his decision to try out for the Olympic team all that more admirable. He knew what was at stake and that failure wasn’t an option. And that’s why those that know Ebner best, including his teammates, were not surprised when he made the team and was bestowed the opportunity to fulfill his dream.
And though Jeff Ebner will not be here to beam with pride and watch his son, the Super Bowl Champion, and now an Olympian, Nate Ebner knows that there isn’t a field on this earth where his father is not with him. “My dad told me over and over, ’Finish strong!’ It’s my mantra. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about him or remember those words,” Ebner says. “Everything I’ve ever done on a field, and everything I will ever do, is in honor of my dad.”