ATLANTA — This past July, the weekend before the New England Patriots reconvened for training camp, special teams standout Nate Ebner took a trip to San Francisco to indulge in his true sporting passion: rugby.
Ebner had been contracted by NBC Sports to serve as an analyst for the 2018 Rugby World Cup Sevens, which was held at the Giants’ AT&T Park.
The appeal to the network was obvious: Two years earlier, Ebner, a rugby standout at the college and international levels before joining the Patriots, had received head coach Bill Belichick’s blessing to temporarily leave New England to compete for a spot on Team USA’s rugby sevens squad for the 2016 Rio Olympics. Despite having not played the sport competitively in six years, he made the team, becoming the first active NFL player to participate in the Olympics.
Many of Ebner’s Olympic teammates, including former NFL prospects Perry Baker and Carlin Isles, continue to suit up for the national team, so he was a natural pick to provide some World Cup commentary. He watched from the sideline as the U.S. blew out Wales in its opening game of the tournament before falling to England in overtime in the quarterfinals.
As all this transpired, Ebner felt conflicted. It was a joy to be back around the sport he loved, the one he grew up playing with his late father in central Ohio. And he was happy to help bolster the broadcast, which drew a record 9 million viewers over three days.
But more than anything, he wanted to be playing.
“It told me how much I hated standing on the sideline, especially watching them all compete,” Ebner said Thursday during media availability at the Patriots’ Super Bowl LIII hotel. “They were doing pretty well until the quarterfinal against England. They went to overtime, and England hit an amazing cross kick that was just a world-class play by Tom Mitchell.
“It sucked to watch that. But the broadcasting part was cool. It was cool to be involved, and I felt like hopefully, I could provide a little bit of insight into things from a player perspective or a USA team member who played with a lot of those guys. But outside of that, I wish I would have been out there playing, to be honest with you.”
Now nearly a decade removed from his decision to switch to football as a junior at Ohio State, rugby remains Ebner’s first love. He keeps in touch with the national sevens team, which, after several years of steady improvement, entered the weekend tied for first place in the World Rugby Sevens Series rankings.
When the U.S. won gold at the Las Vegas leg of the series last March, Ebner joined the team on the field for the trophy presentation.
“I try to go to the Vegas tournament when I can,” he said. “It’s a big stop for the World Series Sevens circuit, and (it’s great) to go back and see the guys that I spent six months grinding with in a brotherhood with those guys. They’re always going to be my brothers. They’re playing in Australia this weekend, and so far they’ve finished in the final in all three legs of the World Series this year, so they’re balling.
“I stay in contact with them, and they stay in contact with me. They wish us good luck. But other than that, we’re so busy that there’s not a whole lot of playing I get to do with them. And obviously last year, with the ACL stuff, it was all rehab (last offseason). But what the future holds, who knows.”
Speaking with Ebner, it’s abundantly clear he’s nowhere near ready to close the book on his rugby career. On the contrary, he fully intends to revive that career once his Patriots tenure is over.
Whether that will include a return to the international stage, he can’t say. He has not ruled out attempting to play in the 2020 Olympics, though.
“I’ll play again, whether it’s another Olympics or if it’s playing with the B-side men’s side in Columbus, Ohio,” the 30-year-old said. “I’ll play for sure. It’s like, guys are going to go play pickup basketball, I would just play rugby. That’s just what I grew up doing, and that’s what I’ll do, for sure. But at what level, I can’t say for certain.”
In the meantime, Ebner, who earned second-team All-Pro honors after returning from Rio in 2016, then had his 2017 season cut short by injury, is focused on capping an impressive comeback campaign with Super Bowl title.
After tearing his ACL in November 2017 — an injury that forced him to miss New England’s Super Bowl LII loss to the Philadelphia Eagles — Ebner has played in 17 of the Patriots’ 18 games this season, finishing tied for second in the NFL with 15 special teams tackles. He was New England’s recipient of the Ed Block Courage Award, given annually to the player on each team who “best exemplifies the principles of courage and sportsmanship while also serving as a source of inspiration,” and will play in a prominent role in the kicking game Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams.
“Physically, it’s been a hard year for me,” Ebner said. “But it’s extremely rewarding to see all the hard work that I put in from Day 1 having surgery, and really before surgery, to playing all year long and playing at a decent level for the most part, and then still being here and able to play.
“That’s what it’s all about, and it’s extremely rewarding to be able to play after watching this game from the sideline last year.”
Thumbnail photo via Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports Images