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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

Justin Morneau nixes Olympic baseball qualifying return

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Justin Morneau, the 2006 AL MVP with the Minnesota Twins, was taken off Canada’s Olympic baseball qualifying roster before he would have played his first competitive game in more than two years.

Morneau, 38, experienced an unspecified setback in training and was replaced on Canada’s roster for next month’s Premier12. The global tournament marks the first opportunity for many world baseball powers to qualify for the sport’s return to the Olympics.

Morneau never played in the Olympics before baseball was cut from the Games after 2008; active MLB players have never competed in the Games. But he was on Canada’s roster at all four World Baseball Classics from 2006 through 2017.

At November’s Premier12, the top nation from North and South America will qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. Japan and Israel are already qualified. Those that do not qualify will get another chance next year.

Morneau could become the second Major League Baseball MVP to play Olympic baseball as a medal sport. The other was Jason Giambi, who made the U.S. team in 1992, the same summer he was drafted in the second round by the Oakland Athletics.

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MORE: Joe Girardi replaced as U.S. baseball manager by World Series champion

Kolohe Andino is first U.S. Olympic surfing qualifier; Kelly Slater faces last chance

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Kolohe Andino is the first American to qualify for surfing’s Olympic debut, which leaves one spot left for 47-year-old Kelly Slater to chase at the final contest of the season.

Andino, a 25-year-old Californian whose first name means “rascal” in Hawaiian, clinched his place in Tokyo on Friday at the penultimate stop on the World Surf League Championship Tour in Portugal. He is ranked fifth in the world, trailing a trio of Brazilians.

One more American man will join Andino on the Olympic team. It will be one of Slater, the 11-time world champion, John John Florence, the 2016 and 2017 World champion, and rising 22-year-old Hawaiian Seth Moniz.

Slater was handed a golden opportunity to qualify when Florence announced in early July that he tore an ACL for the second time in 13 months. Florence had won two of the first five events this season.

Slater has been chasing the sidelined Florence in the standings ever since. But it has not been easy.

Slater hasn’t made the quarterfinals in any of his last seven contests going into December’s finale — the prestigious Billabong Pipeline Masters on the North Shore of Oahu.

“Ninth place, to me, used to be a pretty awful result. I’m used to at least a quarterfinal on for most of my career,” he said in July, noting a back injury. “I’m not horrified by my results, but I’m also not surprised. Maybe other people are because everyone focuses on my age and that kind of thing. It’s not like I’m going to all of a sudden forget how to do this thing, you know?”

Slater, who won the Pipe Masters seven times between 1992 and 2013, must reach the quarterfinals at this year’s event to have any chance of passing Florence to qualify for the Olympics.

Complicating matters: Florence said in August it was his “goal to get better for Pipeline in case I have to come back and compete and gain points,” according to ESPN.com. If Florence does return for the December contest, and makes the quarterfinals, Slater could only pass him with a victory.

Moniz goes into the finale ranked one spot behind Slater, meaning he, too, can grab that second and final Olympic spot with a win or a runner-up.

Slater, who turns 48 on Feb. 11, would be the oldest U.S. Summer Olympic rookie competitor in a sport other than equestrian, sailing or shooting (or art competitions!) in the last 100 years, supplanting Martina Navratilova, according to the OlyMADMen.

MORE: Top U.S. surfer has links to Egg McMuffin, Guinness World Record holder

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