Patriots DB Nate Ebner chases Olympic glory in his first sport: Rugby

CNN sits down with Nate Ebner
CNN sits down with Nate Ebner

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    CNN sits down with Nate Ebner

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Story highlights

  • Nate Ebner is the only active NFL player competing in the Rio Olympics
  • Ebner grew up playing rugby, which he learned from his father
  • Rugby is back in the Olympics for the first time since 1924

(CNN)Rugby has been part of Nate Ebner's life since he was 6 years old, bonding over the game with his father.

And with rugby back in the Olympics for the first time since 1924, Ebner decided in March to chase a dream and go for the Olympic team.
    But Ebner, 27, has a full-time job, and he was going to need permission to take time away. Admittedly, Ebner had some nerves in asking his supervisor, and he doesn't just have any job. Ebner's in the NFL, and his boss is New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. Ebner also had just signed a two-year extension with New England. Missing time also meant missing most of training camp, which started in July.
    Despite any trepidation, Ebner said he didn't want to have any regrets not trying to make the team, telling CNN's Coy Wire he weighed if the monetary value was worth missing out on a chance like this.
    "Lucky enough, though, I didn't have to think too hard about it because I had some conversations with people at the Patriots, and I was able to come to a deal and be allowed to come do this," Ebner said. "I'm so lucky to have the opportunity to go back to a first-class organization like that and at the same time be able to chase a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and a dream to play in the Olympics in a sport I grew up playing. I mean, I'm just really lucky, just really lucky."
    Ebner, a defensive back who plays on special teams for New England, was named to the 12-man team on July 18. He is the only active NFL player competing in the Rio Olympics. If he comes home with any hardware -- and the USA Eagles Sevens' team has a chance to win a medal -- he'll be adding to his collection, having already earned a Super Bowl ring with the Patriots in 2014.
    It's an opportunity his father will never get to see.

    Learning rugby from his father

    Despite playing in the NFL since 2012, Ebner playing rugby at this level isn't as far-fetched as it initially may sound. He played for the national team as a teenager and at 17 was the youngest ever to play for the Men's Eagles Sevens. Ebner also was the MVP of the USA team at the U19 IRB Junior World Championship in 2007 as well as the U20 IRB Junior World Championship in 2008.
    Rugby was an event in the Olympics between 1900 to 1924, when it was the 15-player version of the sport. This time, it's in the form of rugby sevens, a shorter, faster game. Rugby sevens matches consist of two halves, which are seven minutes each. In sevens, Ebner is a forward.
    Growing up in Ohio, Ebner learned the game of rugby from his father, Jeff, a former college rugby player at the University of Minnesota.
    He also was Nate's hero.
    "Growing up, I just wanted to be just like him," Ebner said. "And I think looking back as a father figure, he did everything -- whether he knew it or not -- he did everything he was supposed to do."
    Ebner said he would put his relationship with his father against any other father-son relationship. Their bond, Ebner says, was close.
    "No one was as tight as we were," he said.
    One evening over dinner in 2008, Ebner told his dad he wanted to walk on to the football program at The Ohio State University to try to reach the NFL, despite never having played in high school. His dad's message: Don't play football at Ohio State just for the sake of saying that you did it.
    "I had a promising rugby career going," Ebner said. "I could probably do some things with that. He didn't want to see me throw that away just to say I played football at Ohio State. And I think once I voiced to him that the NFL was something real, that I really wanted to do, we kind of came to terms, and you're all in. You know you're not going to do rugby on the side intermittently between football practices. We're all football, and you've got to give it everything you have and no regrets and to go for it all the way."
    It was the last time he ever talked to his father.

    Losing a best friend

    In November 2008, Jeff Ebner was found at his family business in Springfield, Ohio, beaten to death. He was 53 years old.
    Just like that, Ebner lost his best friend. It was too much to bear. Ebner shut down, dropping out of Ohio State that fall quarter. He moved back into his mother's house, holed up and playing video games, "just in my own world, really," he said.
    Ebner grew up working in a junkyard and knew about thieves that would come by. After his father's death, Ebner contemplated heading out there, taking out his aggression and inflicting pain on others. Thankfully, he said, he never did.
    "It just got to a point where my mom kind of pulled me out of that," Ebner said. "She came to me and was just like, 'I'm not going to watch you do this every day. Your dad would want you to make the most out of your life and not see this just ruin you completely, and you've got to make your relationship with him -- everything he's taught you, the character and everything that he stood for -- make it mean something and that's what he would want from you.'
    "And she was hard on me about it. ... I remember her specifically saying, 'It kills me to see you like this. It really does, and I know it hurts, but I'm just not going to allow you to sit here and at the end of the day feel sorry for yourself.'
    "You know, for me, I needed that, because obviously my head was in a bad place and contemplating doing stupid stuff."
    Ultimately, Ebner returned to school and to the Buckeyes' football program, playing on special teams. He began as a walk-on but would end his collegiate career on scholarship before he was drafted in the sixth round by the Patriots as the 197th overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft. He had done it. He had achieved the NFL dream.

    Staying true to himself

    Now, Ebner's focus is on another goal: winning an Olympic medal.
    It won't be easy. New Zealand, Fiji and South Africa are the best teams in the world, but Team USA could be a dark horse.
    Ebner has been through the lows and highs: Losing his father, winning a Super Bowl and now making the Olympic team. With all of those life experiences in mind, what would he would tell his younger self?
    "It would be simple: Just put your head down and work, and follow your heart," Ebner said. "As long as you're true to yourself, and you work as hard as you say you're working, and you grind as hard as you can, and go after what you want, it'll take care of itself."