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Nate Ebner seeks Super Bowl title months after Olympic rugby

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Super Bowl Sunday is an unofficial holiday in the United States. But members of the U.S. rugby sevens team have long had Super Bowl Monday circled on their calendars.

That is because they will be playing in a tournament in Sydney, where Super Bowl LI will kick off at 10:30 a.m. local time on Monday. They have a flight home to catch that morning, but are hoping to watch the beginning of the football game at the airport to support New England Patriots safety Nate Ebner, who played for the U.S. Olympic rugby team in Rio.

“Nate has a work ethic like no other, and I think that fits with the Patriots’ culture and philosophy,” Olympic teammate Zack Test said. “To transition from football to rugby and back to football takes such a special amount of focus and dedication.”

Ebner had the best season of his five-year NFL career in 2016, leading the league in special-team tackles and being named second-team NFL All-Pro. In an October interview with NBC Olympics, Ebner credited his rugby cardiovascular training for his success on the football field.

“It was pretty easy to get back in the swing of things,” he said.

Ebner is hoping to become the first athlete to play in the NFL, compete at a Summer Olympics and then win a Super Bowl title. Michael Carter won Super Bowl XIX with the San Francisco 49ers five months after claiming the 1984 Olympic shot put silver medal, but he had yet to make his NFL debut when he competed at the Los Angeles Games.

After suffering a concussion during the AFC Championship, Ebner has returned to practice to prepare to face the Atlanta Falcons. He spoke to reporters Monday night at the Super Bowl Opening Night media day, and discussed what it would mean to play Olympic rugby and win his second Super Bowl within a year.

“Obviously with the year that I’m having it would be like the absolute icing on the cake,” Ebner said, according to MassLive.com. “Regardless of all that, it’s so special just to be here.”

Ebner keeps in touch with rugby teammates by checking scores and participating in group texts. The U.S. squad has struggled with injuries this season, sitting in 11th place through three legs of the World Series after finishing sixth last season. Ebner can relate to adversity, playing for a Patriots squad that was without suspended quarterback Tom Brady for the first four games of the season.

“When things don’t go your way on day one, it doesn’t mean pack up and go home,” Ebner said recently to USA Rugby. “There’s a lot of opportunity to get better versus some of the best competition in the world. To miss that opportunity and not play as best you can on day two or three, you’re wasting it. It says a lot about the guys.”

Ebner has not ruled out trying to make the 2020 Olympic team. His rugby teammates have jokingly encouraged him to return to the pitch, but this week they are letting him focus on the Falcons.

“Playing with him in the Olympics, now seeing him play in the Super Bowl … he’s going back-to-back with lifetime dreams,” Olympic teammate Carlin Isles said.

MORE: Nate Ebner on transition from Olympic rugby back to NFL

Worked hard to get here. This is what it's all about! #WinTheDay #GoPats

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U.S. rugby Olympian Jillion Potter faces cancer again

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Jillion Potter beat cancer to make the first U.S. Olympic women’s rugby team. She’s out to beat it again.

Potter, 30, has been diagnosed with Synovial Sarcoma for the second time in two and a half years.

“Jillion has been more than just an ambassador for USA Rugby and the global game,” USA Rugby CEO Dan Payne said in a press release. “As we all know, she’s brave; a courageous teammate in and out of rugby and an inspiration to all. This latest development, though heartbreaking, is an opportunity for the community to again stand behind one of our own as she fights cancer a second time. Like she plays on the field, Jillion will give her all, and we will be there with her every step of the way.”

Potter is accepting financial assistance through this website as she seeks treatment.

Potter’s first cancer fight was inspirational.

She was diagnosed in September 2014, returned to training in April 2015, after 18 weeks of chemotherapy and two months of radiation, and was U.S. captain for the first event of the 2015-16 World Series in Dubai in December 2015.

She made the first U.S. Olympic women’s rugby squad, a sevens team made up of 12 players. The U.S. finished fifth in Rio. In group play, the Americans tied eventual gold medalist Australia, which did not lose a game en route to the title.

MORE: Nate Ebner discusses transition back to NFL

Nate Ebner on transition from Olympic rugby back to NFL

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Nate Ebner is playing his fifth season with the New England Patriots, but it was a moment on the rugby pitch that he considers the most memorable of his athletic career.

“It was pretty exciting to score a try at the Olympics,” Ebner said in a phone interview last week. “I can’t say that I’ve ever done anything comparable to that.”

Ebner became the first active NFL player to compete at a Summer Olympics when he played for the U.S. rugby team in Rio. The Americans finished ninth of 12 teams, as rugby sevens made its Olympic debut.

His first Olympic try helped the U.S. blank Brazil 26-0 on Aug. 9. That morning, Patriots coach Bill Belichick wore a USA Rugby shirt to practice with Ebner’s name on the back. Belichick then gave his players a break from training camp to watch the match against Brazil.

“Hopefully it gave them something to rally around,” Ebner said.

In the same match, Ebner received a yellow card and spent two minutes in the sin bin for a jarring late hit.

“I’ve hit people like that before,” Ebner said. “That’s what we do in rugby, that’s what we do in football. We hit people.”

Ebner returned to Patriots training camp days after his final rugby match in Rio. The biggest readjustments were getting used to the stop-and-start movements of football, as well as the weight of a helmet and shoulder pads.

“It was pretty easy to get back in the swing of things,” he said.

Ebner also had to put on weight after getting in shape for rugby, which he believes is as physically demanding “as anything else in sports at that level.” Rugby is seven-minute halves of continuous action, unlike football, which has breaks after every play. Rugby players also have to cover more ground, since the sport is played with four fewer athletes on a pitch that is nearly 25 yards wider than an American football field.

“I came in here with a very high tolerance for cardiovascular training,” Ebner said. “My ability to run long distances is as good as it’s ever been.”

Ebner used rugby teammate Carlin Isles as an example of the speed in the sport. Isles, who is considered the fastest man in rugby, is listed at 165 pounds. Ebner believes that Isles would have to put on weight to play in the NFL, but at his current weight, Isles has quickness that Ebner never encountered on a football field.

“Of course he is faster than anybody in the NFL,” Ebner said of Isles, a former practice-squad wide receiver for the Detroit Lions. “He’s as fast as anybody I’ve played sports with.”

Several football players approached Ebner with questions about rugby. Even quarterback Tom Brady, a three-time Super Bowl MVP, was curious.

“[Brady] said it was exciting to watch,” Ebner said. “He had never really seen it before.”

Ebner is not sure when he will return to the rugby pitch, saying, “we’ll see where my body is at” when the NFL season is over. He has not ruled out trying to make the 2020 Olympic team.

“Sure, I would think about it,” Ebner said. “But that’s so far away, it’s not on my radar at the moment.”

Ebner might not be the only NFL player who attempts to compete in Tokyo.

“A lot of guys out here would make good rugby players,” Ebner said. “It would all come down to how well they adapt to the flow of the game and if they could pick that stuff up. But you can’t tell until you start playing.”

As Ebner discussed his Olympic rugby experience on a call with NBCSports.com, Patriots teammate Patrick Chung stole his phone.

“Damn right I can play rugby,” Chung said. “Yeah boi!”

MORE: Fiji Olympic rugby coach given 3 acres of land, special name