It was less than a year ago that former Ohio State walk-on Nate Ebner asked the New England Patriots for a leave of absence to follow his Olympic dreams, and now he’s chasing another dream into Super Bowl LI.
The Buckeye lead the NFL in 2016 in special team tackles, finishing the regular season with 17 and the postseason with 20. Despite these league-high numbers, Ebner was snubbed from this Pro Bowl — something he would’ve had to miss anyway. He was sidelined during the second half of the AFC Championship game due to a head injury, but has two weeks to recover ahead of the team’s trip to Houston to face the Atlanta Falcons. It is not known if he will play or not.
His success this season proved his Olympic endeavors didn’t interfere with his NFL career, and might have even made him a better player in the long run. Ebner put a brand new two-year, $2.4 million contract on the line for his chance to compete for Olympic gold.
The special team standout took his absence from football in May 2016, and spent the next four months transforming his body back into rugby shape -- having been out of the game since college — and working with teams to compete in Rugby Sevens for the United States in Rio. After being a long shot to even make the roster, Ebner impressed his coaches with his grit and aggression and earned a spot in the Olympics.
“Nate’s a phenomenal athlete, and he’s got a rugby background growing up,” said team captain Madison Hughes, according to USA Today. “He adds a bit of depth to our team. He’s got pace, he’s got physicality, and he’s got a rugby brain.”
The first match in Rio ended in a 17-14 loss to Argentina, followed by a 26-0 victory over Brazil -- in which Ebner scored his first try of the trip. Despite coming home without a medal, playing in the Olympics had a deeper purpose for the Buckeye.
The All-American rugby player at Ohio State had decided in November of his sophomore year, that he wanted to be a walk-on for Ohio State football. The discussion about making that move and his intention of going pro would end up being the last conversation Nate would ever have with his father. Jeff Ebner was brutally murdered in Nov. 2008.
"I first started playing rugby with my dad when I was 6 years old, and we played all the time," Ebner said, according to ABC News. "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."
It’s the mantra his father used to repeat, “Finish strong”, that has kept Nate pushing forward and reaching new milestones. After being the only one out of 90 tryouts at Ohio State to walk-on to the football team in 2009, Ebner was later drafted by the Patriots in the 6th round of the 2012 NFL Draft.
He earned a Super Bowl ring with the team in 2015 and is looking to add another piece of jewelry to his collection. Despite coming home from Rio without a medal in tow, Ebner was right back in the Patriots’ locker room getting ready for his next shot at greatness.