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!”
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