Nate Ebner returns to rugby from NFL to compete for US Olympic sevens spot

Nate Ebner, a three-time Super Bowl winner with the New England Patriots, will return from NFL to compete for a place on the US Olympic men’s rugby sevens team.

On Monday, USA Rugby announced that the New York Giants safety and special teams player was joining a group of around 30 men seeking one of 12 spots in Tokyo later this year. Ebner, who played rugby as a child in Dublin, Ohio, at Ohio State and for US junior teams, sought and won a place at the Rio Olympics in 2016, when rugby union returned to the fold after more than 90 years.

“We are very excited to welcome Nate back into the pack,” said the USA coach, Mike Friday. “Nate is an authentic, good man who carries himself with humility, has a burning desire to achieve and a passion to embed rugby and its values in the American sporting landscape. He is a Dawg, a Pioneer and will be up for the challenge.”

Under Friday, an Englishman who often refers to his hard-working players as “dawgs” (“Pioneers” is a reference to a 2018 documentary), the US men finished second on the 2019 HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, qualifying for Tokyo behind only Fiji, winners of Olympic gold in Rio. The Eagles finished that tournament a disappointing eighth.

“Not getting a medal in that last Olympics is something that really bothers me,” Ebner said. “When I reflect on what’s important in my life, if I’m being honest, that was high priority. People say, ‘You were the guy who won a gold medal in the Olympics,’ and I’m like, ‘No, we didn’t win a medal.’

“… I thought that we had the team to do it, and as I look at the growth in the last five years, we definitely have an even better chance this time around. It’s something I would really like to be a part of.”

Heralded as “the most interesting player in the NFL … a Jewish Olympic rugby player who never played high school football, was a college walk-on and seldom actually plays safety”, Ebner joined the Giants last March after eight years in New England. The New York head coach, Joe Judge, was special teams co-ordinator with the Patriots when Ebner first returned to rugby.

“We know that rugby has been an important part of Nate’s life since he was a young man,” Judge said on Monday, “and encouraged him to pursue this opportunity. Nate’s rugby training will keep him in great shape this offseason, and we will stay in touch with him as he goes through the process.”

Ebner is now 32 – relatively old for an international sevens player, though Perry Baker, once a wide receiver now twice world sevens player of the year, is 34.

“I’ve been playing NFL football for the last [nine] years and that’s not easy on your body,” Ebner said. “Over 30 in the NFL is an old person. In rugby, there are some older guys but really it’s not about me being 32 in rugby, it’s the journey I’ve had.

“There are guys who are 24 and they’ve had all kinds of injuries. Everyone’s personal situation is different with their body and their age and the wear they’ve had to endure, so hopefully I can hold up.”

The coronavirus pandemic played havoc with sevens, ending the 2020 calendar early, but the US men and women played in Madrid last month. The Olympics were delayed too but the rugby is now scheduled for 26 to 28 July – around the start of NFL training.

“The physical, cardiovascular demands of this game are through the roof relative to football and it’s not even close,” Ebner said. “We don’t get to stop every six seconds after the play is over. It’s just absurd. [In 2016], physically what it took for really six to eight weeks to get myself where I needed to be was extremely difficult. At least this time around I know what to expect physically because I’ve been through it.

“Obviously, you have to assess where you’re at, but you would hope within a week of competition I’m back and I’m in shoulder pads and a helmet and I’m out there trying to get us ready to win some football games.”

It will all add to a remarkable personal story which Ebner will tell in an autobiography due out in May, under the subtitle A Father’s Code and a Son’s Path. Jeff Ebner was murdered 13 years ago. Ebner has since worn a bracelet featuring his father’s motto, now his own book’s title: Finish Strong.

Speaking to the Guardian in 2016, as he first aimed to return to rugby, he said: “I think Dad would be proud of me and I’m proud he was my Dad.”

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