Memory of father drives Patriots' Nate Ebner on Olympic rugby quest

Nate Ebner following his dream (4:26)

Patriots DB Nate Ebner joins SportsCenter to talk about taking a leave of absence from New England to train for the U.S. Olympic rugby team. He also discusses the similarities and differences between football and rugby. (4:26)

CHULA VISTA, Calif. -- Nate Ebner heard the question more times than he can remember after he arrived at the U.S. Olympic Training Center two weeks ago:

Why would a New England Patriots special teamer with a Super Bowl ring and new contract spend his offseason trying to make the U.S. Olympic rugby team?

To understand why Ebner politely smiles whenever he's asked that, you have to go back eight years and flip the context:

Why would an accomplished rugby player think he could walk on for one of the nation's most prestigious college football programs?

The answers to both questions -- and many others Ebner has faced -- can be traced back to his father.

"I think about him every day," Ebner, 27, said. "I always think what he would think about what I'm doing."

Ebner's parents divorced when he was 3 years old, but the father-son relationship wasn't stunted. It developed into a deep friendship rooted in a shared passion for just about everything -- most of all, rugby.

"I first started playing rugby with my dad when I was 6 years old, and we played all the time," Ebner said. "He was my best friend, no doubt. We did everything together. We would compete in the weight room, on the field, and we had the same humor. Everything he liked, I liked. That's just how we were."

Jeff Ebner, who played rugby at the University of Minnesota, coached his son's rugby team at Hilliard Davidson High School in the Columbus, Ohio, area. In the summers, Nate worked with his dad at the family auto reclamation business in Springfield.

"Jeff was an awesome father," Nancy Pritchett, Ebner's mother, said. "He was all about making Nate the best man he could possibly make him, as far as the influence he had as a parent."

When they weren't at the shop, Jeff and Nate would work out or play club rugby. As a teenager, Nate started playing against adults his father's age. Ebner grew to be one of the top junior rugby players in the country. At 17, he was the youngest player ever to compete for the USA Sevens team. He was named team MVP at the Under-19 International Rugby Board Junior World Championship in 2007 and again at the Under-20 IRB Junior World Championship in 2008.

Ebner had an itch to play football while he was in high school, and he nearly joined the team his senior year, but his rugby commitments, which included travel to Wales, Ireland, Dubai and Guyana, came first. He played club rugby at Ohio State after outgrowing junior tournaments, but that was a letdown after he had performed on the international stage.

In November 2008, during his sophomore year of college, Ebner broached the idea of walking on the Buckeyes football team to his father. Because he wouldn't be able to join the team -- if he made it -- until his third year of college, it wasn't an ideal situation. Jeff Ebner wanted to make sure it was a long-term endeavor for Nate -- not just a short-term fix to quench his competitive thirst.

"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. "I told him I wanted to be a professional football player and play in the NFL. He came to terms that if the main goal was to go to the NFL and be elite, then Ohio State was a great platform for that. ... 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.'

"That was the last conversation we had."

On November 13, 2008, Jeff Ebner was beaten to death during a robbery attempt at the auto salvage shop. He was 54.

Nate Ebner was one month from his 20th birthday when his father was killed. The two were supposed to play rugby together that weekend. Instead, Ebner was tasked with giving the eulogy at his father's funeral.

"That was a hard time for me," Ebner said. "I was in a rough place. I dropped out of school for the remainder of that quarter, and I was just in a really bad place. I just kept to myself."

The holidays passed. The calendar turned. The dark cloud lingered. Pritchett knew Ebner was in pain, but she couldn't bear to watch him shuffle through the house with his head constantly down, hidden from the world under a hoodie. She decided to reach out to her son.

"I went up to him," Pritchett said, "and I said, 'Nate, what happened is tragic, and no one should have to go through that, but you're still here, and you have to continue to live your life. If your dad was here, this would really make him sad to see you not living your life.'"

Those words -- and memories of his father's message -- got through to Ebner.

"She wanted me to be the man that he raised me to be," Ebner said. "I just remember the last conversation I had with my dad, where I committed to playing football, and that gave me a lot of motivation to bring me out of the bad place that I was in."

Around 80 hopefuls participated in Ohio State's walk-on tryout in January 2009. Ebner was the only one who made the team. As it turned out, there was something cathartic for Ebner about being on a football field. During a time when he craved emotional support, he got plenty from his new brothers.

"That whole process is what really brought me through it all," Ebner said. "I was in a cloudy, bad place at the time, and being able to come and work through my frustrations and anger on the field and in the weight room and being a part of that family helped me."

The kinship with his teammates enabled Ebner to open up about his father. Midway through his first season, three days after Ohio State was upset by Purdue and fell to 5-2, Ebner asked coach Jim Tressel if he could address the team. Ebner shared the message his father told him whenever he was on the field or in the gym: Finish strong. Those words were etched on a bracelet that his aunt had given him.

"She wore one, he wore one, I wore one, and he gave them to people on a very limited basis," Pritchett said. "He didn't want me giving them to anyone. He wanted to choose who got to wear these bracelets. So he asked his aunt if she could get 100 of the bracelets made in the next few days. She did, so he got up in front of the team, and he talked about what 'Finish Strong' meant to him and his dad.

"He told them about the bracelets and said, 'I don't want you to take them just because you're here, but if it means something to you, they're here.' Everyone on the team, including Tressel, took one."

Tressel, now the president of Youngstown State, said "there was just something special about" Ebner.

"He really earned the respect of everyone quickly," Tressel said. "He hadn't had a whole lot of football experience, but he wanted to do everything he could to help the team. So when he wanted to lay himself open and tell his story to the team and challenge them a little bit, he had, in my mind, earned that right to see if he could impact the people who were there for him when he had some needs. It brought us closer together. It was very impactful."

Ohio State didn't lose another game that season and beat Oregon in the Rose Bowl. Ebner played 36 games and recorded 30 tackles from 2009 to 2011, and he was voted the team's most inspirational player his final season.

Listed as a defensive back, Ebner wasn't used much in the secondary. But at 6-foot, 205 pounds with a 4.48 time in the 40, he was a special-teams demon who chased down return men like a heat-seeking missile. The Patriots took notice and used a sixth-round pick on him in the 2012 draft.

"I didn't know if I would get drafted or if I would even make the team," Ebner said. "I just wanted to work as hard as I could and make the most of the opportunity. I wanted to make it so bad, and I just put my head down and grinded. ... A couple of years go by, and you get a grasp of things, and here I am going into my fifth year. It's crazy."

Ebner became an unrestricted free agent this year, and on March 12, he reached an agreement on a 2-year, $2.4 million contract to stay in New England. Three days later, with the Patriots' blessing, he announced he would be taking a leave of absence to pursue an Olympic berth in the sport his father taught him.

Ebner was back in his element last month on the rugby field at the U.S. Olympic Training Center, but that didn't stop some of his new teammates from ribbing him during the High Performance Camp.

"Go back to the secondary!" one player screamed.

"This isn't the NFL!" another added.

Ebner simply laughed at the jabs as he worked on kicking drills. His rugby instincts remained intact, but all the running turned out to be a challenge.

"In football, it's six to eight seconds of going as fast as you can, and then you can rest, but rugby is a completely different shock to the system," Ebner said during the March 24-28 camp in suburban San Diego. "There's no rest, really, and that makes it so challenging. I'm still getting acclimated to that."

Ebner didn't completely forsake rugby when he took up football. He continued to play with the Tiger Rugby club in Columbus, Ohio, in the NFL offseason -- for cross-training purposes and also with an eye toward this moment. With rugby returning to the Olympics for the first time since 1924, the moment was right for Ebner to return to his roots.

"Rugby is a part of my DNA, so when it became an Olympic sport, it was hard to not be a part of that," he said.

Ebner understands that beating full-time members of USA Rugby to earn a spot on the 12-man Olympic team is not guaranteed. But if he makes the squad, he'll compete in the Rio Games in August before rejoining the Patriots in training camp. He'll return to the international rugby scene this week to play for the elite Samurai side in Hong Kong.

"He has a real chance to make the team. Otherwise, he wouldn't be here," USA Sevens head coach Mike Friday said during last month's camp. "I've been speaking to Nate for a year about this possibility, and he's putting his reputation on the line. ... He's not an NFL player. He is a rugby player who plays in the NFL. He's a unique player and a blueprint of what could happen in the future, with rugby being a complementary sport for the NFL."

The deadline for the U.S. roster to be announced is July 15. Regardless of what happens, Ebner feels back at home playing the sport he has loved ever since his father handed him a ball two decades ago.

"It would have meant a lot for him to witness this and be a part of this," Ebner said. "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."