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What A Year! Rugby Olympian Nate Ebner Is Super Bowl-Bound With New England Patriots

By Karen Rosen | Jan. 30, 2017, 7:05 p.m. (ET)

Nate Ebner poses for a portrait at the Olympic Training Center on July 21, 2016 in Chula Vista, Calif.

No one has ever had six months quite like Nate Ebner.

While all athletes strive to reach the pinnacle of their sport, Ebner did it twice and in two different sports – rugby and football – with no time off between.

The bookends to Ebner’s sensational six months are the Rio 2016 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony on Aug. 5 and Super Bowl LI on Feb. 5.

Ebner played for Team USA in the Rio Games, scoring two tries as the Eagles finished ninth in the inaugural Olympic rugby sevens tournament. He’ll be a safety/special teams player for the New England Patriots against the Atlanta Falcons in Houston on Super Bowl Sunday.

“When I set out to play for the USA Rugby team, that was a daunting enough task in itself just to make that team,” Ebner said. “Then to actually play in the Olympics, that was great.

“But to think I’d be able to do that, stay healthy and go back to football and our team be good enough to make it back to the Super Bowl again, it’s pretty awesome. I’m lucky. I’m blessed.”

Nate Ebner of the New England Patriots reacts after a play against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Gillette Stadium on Sept. 10, 2015 in Foxboro, Ma.

Ebner, 28, already has a championship ring from Super Bowl XLIX, when the Patriots defeated the Seattle Seahawks 28-24. He added an Olympic team ring from Rio.

“Hopefully we can win (against the Falcons) and I can put the Olympic ring between two Super Bowl rings,” he said.

Ebner had to make sacrifices to fulfill his dual roles. He boarded a flight out of Rio the day after the rugby tournament ended, missing the chance to attend the Closing Ceremony, go sight-seeing or enjoy any of the activities Olympians do once their competition ends.

“Obviously I had a place to be,” Ebner said, “but I wish I could have experienced a little more of that.”

The place he had to be was Foxboro, Massachusetts, where the Patriots were already two weeks into training camp. They played their first preseason game while Ebner was in Rio. (He tried to watch, but couldn’t find it on TV.)

Ebner had permission from Bill Belichick, the no-nonsense Patriots coach, to pursue his once-in-a-lifetime rugby shot.

On Aug. 9, the day the Eagles began pool play in Rio, Belichick and some Patriots coaches wore special T-shirts with USA on the front and Ebner’s name and number on the back.

“It was pretty awesome to see that kind of support,” Ebner said. “Obviously they supported me, but to blatantly put a shirt on and wear it out in a public practice like that, that was a really nice gesture.”

Belichick even gathered the team in the squad room to watch Ebner play on the big screen.

He started against Brazil and scored a try in the 26-0 victory. Ebner also delivered a crushing hit that flattened a Brazilian player. It was a move his Patriots teammates could appreciate, although in rugby it warranted a two-minute stay in the penalty box.

“They’ve all heard, ‘I’m the rugby guy,’” Ebner said, “but to actually watch me do it at the Olympics and score and play well and tackle well, I think they enjoyed it and there was nothing but positive vibes.”

Ebner had played rugby since he was a kid, influenced by his father who was later murdered when Ebner was in college. Ebner was a late-comer to football, walking on at Ohio State University. He was drafted in 2012 by the Patriots and excelled on special teams.

When he learned rugby would return to the Olympic Games after a 92-year absence (in the version with seven players on a team instead of 15), he knew he had to go for it.

He joined the Eagles in March, and went on tour to Hong Kong, Singapore and Europe. Ebner learned he’d made the team in July and became the first active NFL player to appear in the Olympic Games. (Other athletes competed in the Games before or after their NFL careers, such as “Bullet” Bob Hayes, the only Olympic gold medalist to earn a Super Bowl ring, and Herschel Walker).

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In Rio, Team USA lost to Argentina 17-14, shut out host Brazil, and then fell to 24-19 to Fiji, the eventual gold medalist, with Ebner scoring his second try.

The Eagles went on to beat Brazil 24-12 the following day, then defeated Spain by the same score to place ninth overall.

Then Ebner was on a plane back to New England. “I had to start getting my mind back into football mode if I wanted to make an impact on the team this year,” he said. “Within a day or two, I was starting to run again and just had football cleats on instead of rugby cleats.”

He also had to acclimate his neck muscles to wearing a helmet again and gain a little weight to get back up to 220 pounds, which, for the 6-foot Ebner was no problem with lifting weights and running fewer miles than he did on the pitch.

Soon after he arrived at camp, Belichick decided it would be expeditious for Ebner to get up in front of the team and share his experiences “to let everybody hear it from me at once,” Ebner said. “Guys were really proud of me and it was nice to hear.”

That included the guy who wears No. 12 on the football field – Ebner’s number for Team USA.

“Tom Brady congratulated me and said he was proud,” said Ebner, who wears No. 43 for the Patriots. “He was very supportive as much as anybody else on the team.”

Belichick told reporters that Ebner had one thing he needed to work on: “Football.” The coach added, “He’s got a long way to go, but no one will work harder at it than he will.”

Ebner said that playing rugby again wound up enhancing his skills on the football field, especially as a special teams player.

“Rugby is a very organized, chaotic game, and football is not so much, except for in the kicking game,” he said. “If you look at the kicking game, you probably think we’re just running around out there, but we’re running with a purpose and a direction and trying to accomplish something.”

And, he added, “I will say that I was in the best shape of my life from a cardiovascular running standpoint as I’ve ever been – ever.

“That doesn’t hurt.”

It certainly didn’t, since Ebner had his best year on the football field and was named to the Associated Press All-Pro Second team.

He played in all 16 regular-season games, appearing on every special teams unit, including serving as the upback on the Patriots’ punt team.

Ebner had a career-best 19 special-teams tackles to lead the Patriots and tie for the league-lead.

He added two tackles so far in the postseason. Ebner might have had more, but sustained a concussion against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the AFC Championship and left the game early. He was not cleared to participate in the Patriot’s first Super Bowl practice last Thursday, but was back in action Saturday.

“I’ve been playing football for a while now and I think I’ve honed in on some things, so I’m not going to take away from that and say it’s all rugby that made me have a great year this year,” Ebner said. “But at the same time, I don’t think it hurt being in that good of running shape and tackling as much as I tackled playing sevens. Getting yourself into position to make a tackle, I applied that to football and it definitely translated over.”

Ebner said the pressure and hype of the Olympic Games and the Super Bowl are similar in the sense that “everybody’s watching, you’re on the world stage and you can’t allow the moment to be bigger than what it is. Ultimately, you’ve got to manage your emotions and put trust in your preparation.”

One notable difference is that rugby sevens has almost non-stop action in two seven-minute halves and athletes play multiple games each day of a tournament. The Super Bowl comes down to one three-hour game.

While the Super Bowl, like the Olympic Games, has the attention of the entire world, Ebner said there is nothing like wearing the U.S. colors in the Opening Ceremony. It made him feel like, well, a Patriot.

“We walk out there and the roar of the crowd for the United States just gave me chills,” Ebner said, “and just kind of brought it all home to me that we’re in this completely foreign place representing the United States of America.”

And it allowed him to reflect on where he’d been in his athletic career and where he was going as soon as the final whistle blew on the rugby pitch.

“That was quite a journey for me, walking away from the NFL like I did to go do that and take the risk that I did,” Ebner said, “and to have it all work out – and just believe it would work out and put everything I had into it – it’s confirmation that I definitely made the right decision.”

He said he made great friendships, gaining “brothers that I’ll never forget.”

“It was an opportunity to bring a game that I love back into my life at the biggest stage in the world,” Ebner said. “It was a great ride and to have the season that I’ve had to follow that up with and be here and play in the Super Bowl, it’s more than I could have ever imagined.”

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Nate Ebner