Last March, just two months after his New England Patriots lost a nail-biter in the NFC Championship game, Nate Ebner made a surprising announcement: Instead of taking some time off before resuming his normal off-season training program, he was going to pick up a different kind of oblong leather ball, in the hopes of making the U.S. Olympic rugby team for this summer’s games in Brazil.
Rugby hasn’t been an Olympic sport since 1924, and the version played in Brazil will be seven-a-side—better known as “sevens”—a frenetic wide-open game that, because of the small teams, will have room for only 12 players. That means that Ebner, who hasn’t played competitive rugby since college, had to beat out dozens of full-time players, many of them pros.
It’s not like he had to start from scratch, though. Ebner, who’s from Columbus, OH, learned the game from his father. He began to play at 6, and by the time he was 17 he was on the USA Sevens team, the youngest player ever to compete at that level. Then he gave up the sport in his sophomore year at Ohio State to attempt to walk-on to the football team, a challenge no less daunting than this one, considering that OSU is one of America’s top college programs.
He became a star of the special teams, blowing up kick returns so impressively that the New England Patriots took him in the sixth round of the 2012 draft. Four seasons later, he’s become such a valuable member of the Patriots’ special teams, they gave him a two year, $2.4 million contract this March.
This year Ebner asked and received permission from the Patriots to chase his dream, and by June, he had played in three World Cup events and was one of 30 finalists vying for those 12 spots. He felt confident, but also knew what he was up against. “There are guys who have been on this team six or seven years waiting for the Olympics,” he says. And while Ebner’s strength and explosiveness were far superior to what they had been before football, the overall physical challenge of the training—“the volume of running,” he says—had been rough. “It’s as demanding as anything I’ve ever done,” Ebner explains. The players cover six to eight miles a day—“all sprinting,” he says.
“I knew coming into this that I didn’t have much time to get my skill set up—it was a big challenge. I’ll be able to sleep good at night knowing that I won’t have any regrets about trying to do this.”