Rugby is back in the Olympics for the first time since 1924. And on this year’s U.S. men’s squad, the Tribe will be represented by a man nicknamed “Leonidas,” of Sparta glory. According to ESPN, he is the only active NFL player to make a U.S. Olympic roster.
Nate Ebner, a top special teams player for the New England Patriots, only had a “10 or 20 percent chance” to make the team back in April, according to U.S. team coach Mike Friday. What Friday didn’t know was the Ebner had overcome far greater odds before.
Ebner was born in Dublin, Ohio, and raised in Cincinnati. His father was a religious school principal at Temple Shalom, in Springfield, Ohio. From a young age, Ebner’s parents taught him “the importance of being Jewish.”
Following in his father’s footsteps, Ebner took up rugby in high school, and quickly became one of the best young rugby players in the nation, playing at under-19 and under-20 IRB championships in 2007 and 2008. During this time, Ebner’s father was killed in a robbery. “My dad stressed finishing strong in every task I did, and conduct myself always in a proper manner,” Ebner said in a 2015 interview with the Jewish Journal of Massachusetts. When he started at Ohio State, he clearly took that to heart.
He’d been playing rugby for U.S. national teams for the last few years, but he was looking for a new challenge. At the beginning of his junior year, Ebner, who’d never played football before, decided that he wanted to try make the storied Buckeye team; he made it as a walk-on. On a field filled with top recruits and seasoned players, Ebner shined, and over the next few years, he earned the respect and admiration of his coaches and teammates on his way to becoming a top-flight special teams player. A former coach of Ebner’s once said: “He was probably the most valuable player on that whole team…If there was a guy that we were going to go down with, it would have been Nate Ebner by far. There isn’t a coach on that staff who wouldn’t say that.”
Following his success at Ohio State, Ebner was drafted in the sixth round of the 2012 NFL draft by the New England Patriots, joining the only Jewish wide receiver in football, Julian Edelman. Here’s one Patriots coach on Ebner’s time with the team, during which he won a Super Bowl ring and led the special teams unit: “His development has really been outstanding. I would probably put him in the, not the all-time top, but maybe in the top-five percent all time of players that I’ve coached, from where they were in college to how they grew in the NFL.”
That coach was Bill Belichick, who isn’t exactly known for doling out effusive praise. But that’s the sort of appreciation that Ebner’s received seemingly everywhere he’s gone. According to Ebner, his grandparents impart on him the same wisdom his father once did, while also making sure he “keep[s] up with Jewish events and…remember[s] [his] origins.” Now, he’ll represent the U.S. on the world’s biggest stage when Olympic Rugby kicks off on August 6.
Jesse Bernstein is a former Intern at Tablet.