Nate Ebner returns to rugby from NFL, eyes another Olympics

Nate Ebner
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In 2016, Nate Ebner became the first athlete with prior NFL regular season experience to compete in the Summer Olympics, less than five months after returning to rugby. He wants to repeat the feat this summer.

Ebner, a 32-year-old New York Giants safety known for his special teams work, announced Monday via Giants.com that he’s trying out for the U.S. Olympic rugby team again.

USA Rugby later confirmed that Ebner joined its residency camp of about 30 players vying for 12 Olympic spots, to be named in late June or early July.

The news comes exactly five years after Ebner announced his first Olympic bid — seven years removed from his junior national team days before he focused on football at Ohio State and later won Super Bowls with the New England Patriots.

In 2016, Ebner was successful in one aspect. He made the 12-man U.S. team for Rio, where rugby returned to the Olympic program for the first time since 1924, and started the last two group games.

But he left Brazil unsatisfied. The U.S. was eliminated from medal contention in heartbreaking fashion before the knockout rounds.

Captain Madison Hughes missed a late two-point conversion attempt from out wide against Fiji in the group finale. Had he made it, the Americans still would have lost to the Fijians, but they would have been in position to sneak into the quarterfinals by one in tiebreaking point differential. Instead, they finished ninth.

“Not getting a medal in that last Olympics is something that really bothers me,” Ebner said, according to Giants.com. “When I reflect on what’s important in my life, if I’m being honest, that was high priority. People say, ‘You were the guy who won a gold medal in the Olympics,’ and I’m like, ‘No, we didn’t win a medal.’ Not winning a medal, especially when I thought that we had the team to do it, and as I look at the growth in the last five years, we definitely have an even better chance this time around. It’s something I would really like to be a part of.”

After Ebner went back to the NFL, the U.S. men’s rugby sevens team finished No. 2 in the world in the 2018-19 season. It dropped back to No. 7 last season, which was cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Americans returned to competition last month, going 6-5 over two weekends in Madrid. Perry Baker, a two-time World Player of the Year, suffered a significant leg injury in one of the matches. USA Rugby declined to disclose the specific injury and has not said how long Baker is expected to be sidelined.

Just like in 2016, Ebner has the support of his NFL club. Giants head coach Joe Judge was Ebner’s special teams coordinator with the Patriots in 2016. At 32, Ebner is older than all but one player was on the 2016 U.S. Olympic team. The U.S. men’s rugby sevens head coach remains Mike Friday, who was also at the helm in Rio.

“[In 2016], physically what it took for really six to eight weeks to get myself where I needed to be was extremely difficult,” Ebner said, according to Giants.com. “At least this time around I know what to expect physically because I’ve been through it. Last time I played [rugby], it had been five years competitively. I’m hoping I’m in a better place this time around than I was five years ago, but I’m also five years older.”

Ebner’s father, Jeff, played rugby at the University of Minnesota and coached Ebner’s high school team in Columbus, Ohio. Ebner became the youngest man ever to play for the national sevens team at age 17.

In November 2008, Ebner brought up to Jeff an idea of walking on to the Ohio State football team.

“He said, ‘I don’t want to see you throw away all the years and potential you have as a professional rugby player just so you can play football at Ohio State,'” Ebner said, according to ESPN.com in 2016. “He said, ‘If you’re going to do it, you have to go all the way. If you want to go to the NFL, you have to be committed.'”

The next day, Jeff was beaten to death during an armed robbery at the auto reclamation shop he owned.

“It would have meant a lot for him to witness this and be a part of this,” Ebner said before he made the Rio Olympic team, according to ESPN.com. “I think he would be proud of what I’m doing and the light this is shining on rugby in the States. He loved playing rugby, and I’ll do anything to give back to this sport that has given me so much.”

Ebner took a one-for-all mindset as he returned to the program, according to the Giants.com story reposted by USA Rugby.

“Even if I didn’t make the team, helping the team get to a place where they need to be going into the Olympics to win a medal, that’s a big motivation,” he said. “There will come a time when physically I’m not capable of doing any of this stuff. When that day comes, I won’t do it, but while I can I will.”

NBC Olympic research contributed to this report.

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