Patriots safety Nate Ebner’s career took a path different to many NFL stars. The second-team All-Pro special teams player went to Ohio State and was drafted — that much is similar to dozens of others. Ebner’s path differs before he put on pads for the Buckeyes, before his time at Ohio State, when he was a rugby star.
Unlike most kids his age, Ebner immediately gravitated toward Rugby Union from a young age. Throughout his childhood and into his teens he played the sport and excelled, playing in the Junior World Cup while in high school. Despite this early success it wasn’t until he made the switch to the faster, more athletic Rugby Sevens that Ebner became a bonafide superstar.
At age 17 he became the youngest player in American history to suit up for the United States Rugby Sevens team — this continued after he enrolled at Ohio State where he was still competing internationally while getting his degree. Ebner’s father taught him the sport and he immediately fell in love, but the two talked about the possibility of making the switch to football.
Jeff Ebner, Nate’s father, was murdered in 2008. Nate was enrolled in Ohio State playing rugby at the time, and the event impacted how his future unfolded. Those prior discussions about making the switch to football came to the forefront, and Ebner, then 19 years old, decided to make the switch.
“Before my dad passed we had talked about me playing football. [...] I spoke with my dad about it and I decided to do it under one condition: he said only to do it if I put rugby on hold and give everything I have to football to try and make it to the NFL (which was a goal of mine).”
Transitioning from rugby to football was difficult, but Ebner showed he was up to the challenge. He was a walk-on in 2009 who hoped to make an impact and immediately found a role on special teams. His ability to run in space, paired with his natural tackling ability made him an ideal gunner. His hard work was rewarded his senior year with a football scholarship.
Most players like Nate would have left Ohio State and remembered their time with football fondly, but the Patriots saw something in the 22-year-old that others didn’t. Instead of drafting a highly ranked player with the hopes of turning him into a special teams player, the Pats took Ebner, widely regarded as an undrafted free agent at best, with the belief he could be a missing piece in their puzzle.
Ebner has never masked who he is: rugby player first, football player second. When it was announced Rugby Sevens were being added to the 2016 Rio Olympics the itch returned, and Ebner decided he had to return to the field. The Patriots understood the desire, because they understood their player.
“It was a lengthy discussion, over many different conversations. But in the end, they knew who they drafted in 2012 in me being a rugby player and they understood this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me and they have shown nothing but support through this entire journey. I'm so lucky to have their blessing and this may not have happened without them backing me to do so.”
USA might have only finished ninth in Rio, but the Patriots safety lived out a lifelong dream — and gave us one hell of a highlight along the way.
It’s been a remarkable year for the rugby-turned-NFL player. He kept his spot on the Patriots despite traveling to Rio for the Olympics, continued to be a standout on special teams and was rewarded with a selection to the 2016 second team All-Pro for his efforts this season, a year he finished with 19 tackles and a forced fumble.
Ebner’s path to the NFL and through life hasn’t been easy, but now he’s on the verge of being a two-time Super Bowl champion and an Olympian. Nobody can hold a candle to that.