On Feb. 1, Columbus native and New England Patriots’ safety Nate Ebner, 26, walked out of the University of Phoenix Stadium with a Super Bowl XLIX ring. His team beat the Seattle Seahawks.
It’s an unlikely scenario most didn’t expect from the Central Ohio rugby standout.
“I think that, when it all kind of went down, there was kind of a pull for me to go play [rugby] professionally a little bit,” said Ebner, a Hilliard Davidson High School graduate.
The rugby star had earned a spot on the U19 U.S. Junior National team in 2007 and again on the U20 team in 2008. He was named the team’s MVP in the International Rugby Board Junior World Cup both years.
“I’ve always been around rugby,” said Ebner, son of Nancy Pritchett and the late Jeff Ebner. Nate watched his dad play on the Scioto Valley men’s team before later joining the team himself.
To most folks, the future of 6-foot, 210-pound Ebner seemed written in the stars – he would go on to an international rugby career, given his stunning success at such a young age. But Ebner had something else in mind – a dream he kept close to his vest.
“I think the whole reason I didn’t play [international rugby] was to play in the NFL,” Ebner said. Though he never played football in high school, he had dreams of playing in the NFL. So even speaking of Super Bowls would have seemed to be a reach, he added.
“I wouldn’t tell anyone that when it happened, because I didn’t know about football and they all thought it was a little bit ‘delusions of grandeur,’” Ebner said. “But that was something I really wanted and that was kind of a long-term goal for me.”
The one person who did believe in the possibility was Ebner’s father. A fateful conversation before Jeff Ebner was killed during a robbery at the family’s auto-salvaging business in November 2008 gave Ebner the lasting motivation that has spurred him throughout his career as a self-described cross-over athlete.
“My dad actually passed away right before I walked onto Ohio State football, and I had talked to him about playing,” said Ebner, who joined the team in 2009. “And it was like, ‘If you’re gonna do it, you need to do it. Put everything you have into it. Don’t kinda play football and kinda play rugby. If you wanna make this work and you wanna succeed and go to the NFL, you need to give it everything you have.’”
“I think you’re molded by the people you’re around, especially my Dad, back in the day, just everything we did was compete and get better and work hard and not be lazy. Those things kind of carried through with me as I became a man.”
Armed with his father’s words, Ebner took his rugby experience, his work ethic and all his will to face down his lack of football experience in the ‘Shoe.
“The professionalism of playing on the national team at such a young age got me prepared to play Division I football, from a professionalism standpoint,” said Ebner, who later earned a scholarship at OSU that led to his bachelor’s degree in nutrition with a minor in exercise science.
But the conversion from rugby to football wasn’t easy. While the nutrition and professionalism aspects translated, the training and the complex details of playing the game required Ebner to reach deep for success.
“When you really get down to the details of things, it’s pretty different, even the tackling,” Ebner said.
The real learning curve was on the field and in the playbook. Other kids his age had the distinct advantage of playing high school football, learning the lingo, understanding the plays – all things Ebner had to learn on the fly.
“When I got to Ohio State, I didn’t realize really how intricate football really is. It was definitely humbling and I had to take it upon myself to learn everything that people had learned through high school and college playing,” said Ebner. “I’d say I spent extra time in the book. I wasn’t going to fail because I wasn’t smart enough or I didn’t work hard enough to learn my craft.”
And because Ebner’s dream was so big, he worked overtime to achieve it.
“I didn’t ever want there to be a ‘he didn’t work enough to succeed,’” Ebner said. “Athletically I was there, but I didn’t ever want anyone to say, ‘He doesn’t work hard enough or he doesn’t study hard enough or he doesn’t understand the game enough to be able to play.’”
So Ebner reinvented himself and his game through hard work. He was voted most inspirational football player at OSU, receiving the Bo Rein Award in 2011. He was also voted Best Special Teams Player, earning the Ike Kelley Award, and he was a three-time Big Ten Conference All-Academic honoree.
And through it all, he’s kept his vision clear.
“I think there was a fear of, if it didn’t work out for me, looking back and having regrets,” Ebner said. “I think that was a big motivator for me, just in every moment where I felt like I didn’t want to do something, think about the outcome and if it didn’t work out, I’d look back at that moment, how I would regret that I didn’t do everything I could have done to get better.”
And nothing would have come his way without the support of others, Ebner said.
“I think you’re molded by the people you’re around, especially my Dad, back in the day, just everything we did was compete and get better and work hard and not be lazy. Those things kind of carried through with me as I became a man,” Ebner said. “It comes back to the people I was raised with and the character values that have been placed in me by my family and by the coaches.
“You know, it’s not just me. I don’t think anyone’s success could come back to just them. There’s always other people that had a huge part in their development.”
And for Ebner, it was his parents.
“I like to think that the reassurance of my parent[s], the confidence I gained from the leaders in my life, built me up and made me stronger,” Ebner said. “I always think back to my Dad or my Mom just always giving me support and never tearing me down, but always telling me I could do something.”
That infusion of love and support helped Ebner realize his once-impossible dream.
Ebner was chosen by the Patriots in the sixth round of the 2012 draft. Because he played just three defensive snaps in his junior year with the Buckeyes and spent the remainder of his time at OSU on special teams, he wasn’t necessarily viewed as someone the Patriots would be using on defense.
But Ebner’s hard work and dedication moved him forward through the depth chart and manifested as more playing time on “D” over his last three seasons with the Patriots.
And now, the ring.
“I still think there’s a long way to go,” Ebner said. “I’ve done everything I can to get better, and then when I get the opportunities to go out and play, I’m going to do everything I can and I’m going to do it to the best of my ability.”
And, as Ebner continues to evolve, he’s keeping his next five-year plan to himself once again.
“I don’t like to say it or try to predict the future. I’ve got a place in my mind of where I want to be, and I’m going to do everything day in and day out to get to those places that I want to be,” Ebner said. “If it happens, then maybe I can give credit to the hard work, and if it doesn’t, you’ve got to adapt and do something different. Proving to yourself that you can be who you want to be, and nobody has more say in that than you.”