HOUSTON — Over the course of the past century, there have been dozens of NFL players who have competed in the Olympic Games, with varying levels of success.
Bob Hayes, a Pro Football Hall of Famer regarded by many to be one of the fastest humans of all time, is the only person to win both an Olympic gold medal and a Super Bowl ring. Michael Carter took silver in the shot put in Los Angeles in 1984, then went on to become one of the best nose tackles in the NFL, where he won three championships with the 49ers. (His daughter, Michelle, won gold in the same event in Rio.) Herschel Walker was part of the U.S. bobsled team at the 1992 Winter Games in France.
No one has had a year quite like Patriots safety Nate Ebner, who competed with the U.S. rugby sevens team last summer in Brazil, then returned to New England and reached a Super Bowl — the second of his career — six months later. And while the experience has been exhausting, it’s one Ebner wouldn’t change for a second.
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“You can train for years to accomplish the goal of competing in the Olympics, so just to be a part of that was something special,” Ebner told FOX Sports earlier this week. “The journey from as soon as the football season ended, traveling all over the world to just try to make that team — that whole process was very special and different from anything I’ve ever done before. And then this is a great football team that’s getting better week in and week out … and this has been a great experience too.
“It’s special, and it’s unique, and they’re different,” Ebner continued, comparing the Olympics and the Super Bowl, “but they’re awesome because they’re both world stage events, and I feel lucky and blessed to be part of both of them.”
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Though he’s known better, nationally, for his role on one of the NFL’s most high-profile teams, Ebner’s passion has been rugby since childhood. The son of a former college rugby player and coach, Ebner began playing the sport when he was 6, and by age 17, he was the youngest player to ever compete with the U.S. sevens team.
From there, Ebner joined the club rugby team at Ohio State, but it wasn’t until his junior year, after his father was murdered at the family’s Springfield, Ohio, auto salvage shop, that he got his first taste of American football, as a walk-on for Jim Tressel’s Buckeyes.
“I didn’t understand what Cover 2 was,” Ebner told reporters Wednesday of his introduction to the game. “I had no understanding of it. Luckily, I was athletic enough to get myself on the field playing some special teams and that’s kind of where I gravitated. They said, ‘Run down the field and tackle the guy with the ball.’ That’s what I tried to do. That was the most relatable thing for me that could get me on the field quickly.”
Soon enough, Ebner was on scholarship in Columbus, and in 2012, the Patriots took him in the sixth round of the NFL Draft. In the five years since, Ebner has emerged as a key cog on New England’s special-teams unit, in addition to his play in the secondary, and in 2014 he won a ring at Super Bowl XLIX.
He never lost the itch for his original sport, so when the opportunity presented itself to compete for the U.S. last summer, he jumped at the chance.
“There’s plenty of gifted athletes, but I have years of experience playing rugby,” Ebner said Monday when asked why more athletes don’t pursue Olympic opportunities outside their primary sport. “It’s not like I just walked out there and played. And I think that was a huge part of why I was able to transition the way I did, because of the experience that I’ve had. Obviously I’ve gained more experience playing football, but ultimately that experience that I had growing up playing rugby is what allowed me to do what I do.”
Still, there were undoubtedly concerns that Ebner, who signed a new two-year deal with the Patriots in March, could put his NFL career at risk with a serious injury on the rugby pitch.
“It’s very risky, and that’s something you’re going to have to sleep with at night if it doesn’t work out and something does happen,” Ebner said. “I don’t know that a lot of people are willing to go through that if that were to happen. I was just extremely convicted in my decision to do that, and it’s something that would have kept me up more at night, wondering what the experience would have been like, more than, ‘Hey, I got hurt, and I shouldn’t have done that.’ I could have rested easy with that.”
Thankfully, Ebner escaped the summer unscathed, as the U.S. team, which also featured former Lions practice squad player Carlin Isles and former Eagles training camp invitee Perry Baker, went 1-2 in pool play and ultimately finished in ninth place in the tournament. Still the initial transition back to football — the Patriots had already played their first preseason game by the time Ebner returned from Rio — was a challenge.
“To correlate it to track, football is a lot like running 40-meter dashes, or even less, 20-meter dashes,” Ebner explained. “You sprint, you stop, you rest for quite some time, and you’re fully recovered most of the time when you’re doing the movements.
“By comparison, rugby is like running in the 800 or the mile, with the mental toughness it takes to sustain that throughout a game, but also fundamentally having your skills on point,” he continued. “Rugby, in a sense, is like a running wrestling match in a basketball game. It’s got so much involved, and football is a lot more burst-and-rest. So cardiovascularly, it’s very, very different.”
Any hangover was short-lived, however, as Ebner had the best season of his career in 2016, earning a second-team All-Pro nod after leading the league in special teams tackles. It still remains to be seen whether he’ll play in Sunday’s Super Bowl after leaving the AFC Championship game with his second concussion of the season, but his presence in Houston is historic, nonetheless.
“I just try to build off of each year and each game and each experience out there on the field and take everything that I did in the offseason, whether it’s rugby or fitness, and try to implement that into my game,” Ebner said. “And I’m lucky enough that I’ve been able to make the plays that have come to me, but a lot needs to be said about the guys around me that allow me to do that.
“It could be very coincidental or it could be that it’s my fifth year in the NFL and I’m starting to pick up,” Ebner added when asked if his Olympic experience may have had a positive impact on his play with New England. “I don’t have the answer to that, but I’m glad I’m playing well.”
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