Nate Ebner's transition from New England Patriots safety to rugby player at the 2016 Rio Olympics has been almost seamless. He was instrumental in the United States' 26-0 blowout win over Brazil on Tuesday, scoring after bulldozing a Brazilian player to give Team USA a 12-0 lead. (He was also whistled for a late hit later in the match, but mistakes happen, right?)
Team USA lost its opening bout against Argentina on Tuesday, 17-14, but it bounced back in a big way against Brazil. It had its work cut out for it to make the semifinals with powerhouse Fiji looming, but it was certainly good to have some positive momentum heading into the match.
Unfortunately, the momentum wasn't enough to secure a win against Fiji. The reigning world champions and the favorite to win rugby gold, Fiji defeated the United States with a final score of 24-19.
While a five-point differential may not seem like a heartbreakingly close loss, it was. The United States needed to lose by a margin of four points or fewer to advance to the quarterfinals and preserve a shot to medal. Ebner scored to bring Team USA within five points of Fiji, but then Madison Hughes missed a conversion that would have narrowed Fiji's lead to three points.
Later in the day, Team USA went on to face Brazil for a second time, winning 24-12. The United States will play Spain for ninth place Thursday at noon ET.
Ebner was named one of the members of the 12-team American rugby sevens squad in July. He had to ask for leave from the Patriots to pursue his Olympic dream, and the team supported him. Ebner said the Patriots understood his drive to compete for Team USA.
"I think they just knew who they had in me when I was first drafted," Ebner said on Sirius XM NFL Radio. "I was a rugby player in college, I had a long background in rugby in the United States underage program, and I think they just understood that I was a rugby player and my desire to go play in the Olympics was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me."
The team didn't just support Ebner's decision to play rugby for Team USA. On Tuesday, Patriots coaches and players wore Ebner jerseys and had a viewing party to watch the United States take on Brazil.
Bill Belichick supporting Nate Ebner with some USA Rugby gear. Games today vs. Argentina (12p) and Brazil (5p). pic.twitter.com/Lr3wV5oGY2— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) August 9, 2016
Ebner played rugby at the junior national level and was an All-American with Ohio State's club team before giving up the sport for American football. Now he's making up for lost time in a big way.