A Conversation With 2016 Olympian and Three-time Super Bowl Champion Nate Ebner
Nate Ebner is one of a kind.
In the football-crazed United States, Ebner is the perfect man to bridge the gap because he is a rugby player to his core. His rugby resume speaks for itself. He’s represented the United States as a member of the U-19 and U-20 teams, earned MVP of the U-20 side that competed in the IRB World Championship, and was a member of the United States men’s sevens team that competed at the 2016 Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro.
Checking any one of those boxes would fit most people’s definitions of a successful athletic career. But that doesn’t even include what Ebner has done on the football field.
After wrapping up his Junior World Cup duties during his freshman year at Ohio State University, Ebner walked-on the Buckeyes’ football team and played his way into a scholarship before his senior season. As a special teamer, Ebner’s 30 total tackles and one sack over his three-year career at Ohio State got him drafted to the New England Patriots in the sixth round of the 2012 NFL Draft.
Since being drafted, Ebner has been a steady contributor on special teams for a Patriots team that has won three Super Bowls in that time. Including the playoffs, he’s tallied 41 total tackles on 112 games and earned Second Team All-Pro honors in 2016 for his special team efforts.
On top of all that, Ebner has blazed new trails throughout his journey. Not only was he the youngest person to ever play on the United States men’s national team at 17 years old, but he was also the first active NFL player to ever compete in the Olympics.
The MLR was built with the goal in mind to build up North American rugby. That makes Ebner one of the best, most qualified candidates to talk about what he’s seen of the young league as it makes its way through its second year. Ebner talked about that and a handful of other topics in our Q&A below.
1) I feel like there is more of an appetite for rugby in North America now than there ever has been, do you feel the same way? If so, why do you think that is?
I would agree. I think that has started from the grassroots. I think there has been a lot more participation in recent years compared to back in the early 2000s and even before that, especially at the high school level and younger. So, more players = more fans as well. I also think the “product” of rugby has gotten a lot better, especially in the United States. Not only on the field with the gameplay but also with television and broadcasting and the newer technology which makes it easier to access. Major events like the CRC, Rugby World Cup 7s, the ARC, etc… these high-quality rugby tournaments at an elite level are being broadcasted on major networks and done exceptionally well. All of these things have helped with the growth and appetite for the game and I think the MLR is the next step in that it is not just a single weekend tournament, but a season with teams that fans can feel a part of not only from the perspective of fans being fans of specific players but also now, they’re locally represented by their team and can feel a sense of ownership like you see in major sports in the United States.
2) What do you think of the MLR so far?
I think the MLR has put a fantastic product of rugby out on the field and will only continue to improve as the league becomes more competitive. Along with that, the television production and broadcasting are much better than past events being broadcasted only 10 years ago and that will also continue to improve.
I think this is a prime time for rugby in the United States for the MLR to have success. Attempts at past leagues in the U.S. were unsuccessful and could be attributed to many different reasons but the readiness for rugby in the United States was one of them. I think the setup of the league is fantastic as well with different franchises across the country and can’t wait to watch that develop more in years to come.
3) Have you gotten any of your Patriots teammates interested in rugby at all?
Yes, they all watched when I participated in the Olympics and they’re always asking me about the men’s sevens team and how they’re doing in the World Series. They are also curious about pro rugby and the leagues that there are in the world – which allows me to tell them about the MLR and how new, but promising it is.
4) How did rugby help prepare you for a career in the NFL?
It helped me in many, many ways that would take a long time for me to explain them all. But from a physical aspect – I was always in great shape because of rugby. I was also able to see the big picture in football, see the offensive set and see what was happening as the play developed after the snap as that’s something, you’re constantly doing in a rugby game. It helped my communication too as we’re always chirping to help our mates on the rugby field, I could apply that to football. I’d would also say rugby has helped me tackle in space more effectively as it is a skill you are constantly repping throughout a game.
I will play rugby when I’m done with my football career – whether that’s touch rugby or MLR or another Olympics… who knows. But I will be throwing the ball around again. It’s part of who I am.
6) How did playing in the Olympics compare to playing in the Super Bowl?
Two amazing experiences, but two very different experiences. Olympics was a month long, opening ceremonies, 8000 athletes both male and female from all over the world, and a multi-day tournament for the rugby event. Multiple games each day, so you have to be able to move on to the next game. The super bowl is a media frenzy. Craziness. But ultimately, another football game. It’s amazing to play in the game to be crowned the best team in the entire league for that year and lifting the Lombardi trophy is extremely special. They’re both amazing experiences to be playing at the pinnacle of each sport and competing to be the best in the world. Different experiences, but great experiences that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
7) Where are some areas of rugby that football could take lessons away from?
I wouldn’t get into anything about the physical aspects of how you play the games because they’re different games, played differently, the tackling is different, even the running is different, so I don’t like to compare those. Rugby does a great job of sportsmanship with opponents and that’s something I’d love to see in the NFL. Not that it isn’t, but I don’t think, across the board, the amount of respect given by players to their opponents is at the level rugby is.
8) What are some of your fondest moments of playing rugby?
Learning to pass the ball. Playing with my father. Playing in junior world cups, club sevens, CRC, Ohio State, Olympics…. I’m fond of a lot of rugby moments.
9) Do you follow any MLR teams? If so, which ones and why?
I follow all of them. I follow the MLR. I know a lot of guys throughout the league and follow their progress and success and love to watch them compete and make history in this new league and see who’s lifting the shield at the end of the season!
10) If you had to build out a starting XV with NFL players, who would you pick?
I hate this question. Because none of them know how to play rugby… I’d pick rugby players.
I also want to add that having this league is awesome and necessary for rugby in the United States. It gives young kids something to strive towards that has never existed in America. A platform to have a professional career in a sport that didn’t have much direction in the U.S. outside of playing for the national team… until now. It has a lot of growing to do, but it has started and it’s an extremely exciting time for rugby in America!
Colton can be reached at email@example.com.
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