PHOENIX -- It worried Nate Ebner’s mother, Nancy, to see her son moping around the house in his ever-present hooded sweatshirt. This would prove ironic, based on the sartorial signature of Nate’s future boss.
Nate wasn’t moping, actually. This was the winter of 2009, before he became a special teams ninja for New England; indeed, before he’d played a single snap of college football. He was mourning the sudden death of his father. On Nov. 13, 2008, Jeff Ebner was killed in the office of his auto salvage business in Springfield, Ohio, beaten to death during a robbery by a man who later pled guilty to murder and is now serving a sentence of 15 years to life.
“Nate would just sit up there in the media room of our house with that hood pulled down over his face,” recalls Nancy. “It gave him some safety when he broke down, so no one could see him.”
Nancy and Jeff Ebner split amicably when Nate was 3. Father and son remained close. “Jeff was a big part of Nate’s life,” Nancy recalls. “They were so close as father and son. With Nate getting older, they were becoming close as friends.”
One of the strongest bonds between them was rugby, that redheaded stepchild of American pastimes. It was rugby that kept Nate from playing high school football, rugby that kept him from walking on at Ohio State until his junior season. That’s right, the Patriots spent a sixth-round draft choice on a guy who’d taken all of three defensive snaps in college.
“One of them was a sack,” Ebner hastens to point out. In a Super Bowl crowded with implausible participants -- undrafted free agents, Canadians, college quarterbacks-turned-slot receiver/punt returners -- no one’s journey to Sunday’s kickoff is less likely than that of Ebner.One of his earliest steps down that path came on the day before his father was attacked.
“He got the bug. He just loved that sport, and passed it on to me,” says Nate, who’s been around the sport since he was 6. Because of the dearth of youth leagues at the time, his first match came in a B-side men’s game. Ebner was 13.
“I remember vividly, the other team had a line break, I was out on the wing, and there was a pretty big dude coming at me. I had to take him down. And I did.”
Ebner became a rugby prodigy. At the age of 16, he went to a USA rugby developmental camp and made the under-19 team that travelled to a World Cup tournament in Dubai in 2006.
Meanwhile, his best friends at Hilliard Davidson High (Ohio) played on the football team. In the summer before his senior year, Ebner decided to go out for the team. But when he was selected to play in the Under-19 World Championship, he put football on the back burner.
He enrolled at Ohio State, played in another world championship, this one in Wales, where the coaches took advantage of his versatility and smarts. “Usually I play fly-half, but in Wales I played every back line position but fly-half.”
Back in Columbus, he had a decision to make. With another two years of college, it was too early for him to pursue a professional rugby contract overseas. Having played at an elite level, he found the club-level competition in Columbus … unfulfilling. It also nagged at him that the Hilliard Davidson football team he’d almost joined -- backing out to focus on rugby -- had won a Division-I state championship.
“I’m kind of in limbo with rugby, and the football thing is lingering,” says Ebner. He decided to try to walk on with the Buckeyes. He called his dad to run it by him. Jeff was all for it. “But,” he told his son, “if you’re gonna do this, do it full go. You’ve got to give it everything you have, no distractions, no club rugby on the side. Pour everything you have into it, and let’s see where it can take you.”
The day after he offered that advice, Jeff was assaulted. He died in the hospital a day later.
For more than a month, Nate was a zombie, a silent occupant of his mom’s house, taking shelter within the hood of his sweatshirt. Finally, she spoke to him about it. “Your dad wouldn’t want to see you like this,” she told him. “This isn’t you. You’re not living your life.”
Football helped snap him out of it. You don’t just walk on and become a Buckeye. Ebner reported, along with 80 or so other wannabes, to an open tryout. He wasn’t a rah-rah Ohio State football fan. “I was never like, ‘Let’s go to the game!’ I didn’t really care.” Many of the guys who showed up for the tryout did care, deeply. “There were a lot of guys in [James] Laurinaitis jerseys,” he recalls. None of them stuck. Ten or so students were invited back. Almost all of them quit during the ensuing, grueling two-week conditioning period. Ebner remained.
The truth is, he welcomed the physical suffering. “At least I would feel my body,” he recalls. “That was a period of time when I just felt kind of numb. I’d sit through an hour-long lecture and not hear anything.”
The extended Ohio State football family “adopted me, if you will,” he says. “And that was so big for me. It gave me an outlet for my stress and my anger. I had no time to do anything else but be with those guys, work hard, and play football.”
And, let’s face it, learn football.
"I was all right at tackling, from rugby, but I had no clue about what was happening on defense," he says. "Schemes, reading keys -- I was so far behind. One thing I knew I could do, though, was run under kickoffs."
He could fly -- at 6-foot, 205 pounds, he ran a 4.48 40 -- and he could find the football. Then-head coach Jim Tressel couldn’t keep him off the field. Ebner quickly emerged as a special teams standout. He worked hard on his craft, learning to play safety, and was frustrated his senior year -- by then he’d earned a scholarship -- by the coaches unwillingness to let him play defensive back.
“I felt I should’ve been playing, at least nickelback,” he admits. “But I embraced my role as a leader on special teams, and made as many plays as I could.”
But really, how bitter could he be? It’s not like they were costing him a chance at an NFL career. That wasn’t happening. Sure, he was a good athlete and a world-class player -- in rugby. But his football résumé consisted of two seasons at Ohio State, during which he took all of three defensive snaps. Against Akron.
Naturally, the Patriots found him irresistible, selecting him in the sixth round of the 2012 draft. He made the roster outright. Such has his impact been on “teams” that he’s now at the end of his third NFL season.
“His development has really been outstanding,” Bill Belichick told the Boston Globe earlier this season. “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.”
Ebner, he went on, “has adapted in a relatively short amount of time to the knowledge of our defense, to the understanding of opponents’ offenses, to instinctiveness and reading and recognition at a position that he plays right in the middle of the field, which is among the most difficult -- inside linebacker and safety -- where the number of things that can happen is the greatest.”
Ebner was coming on strong at safety in the preseason, but broke his thumb in Week 4, missed four games and has since stuck primarily to special teams.
But hey -- he’s here! Keep an eye out for No. 43 on Sunday. He's on every Patriots’ special team. The guy who walked on in Columbus his junior year will be the only former Buckeye on the field.
Sitting at his assigned table during Thursday morning’s press conference at the Sheraton Wild Horse Lodge and Spa, Nate was asked if he’d been thinking about his dad.
“How could I not?” he replied, with a smile. “He was my best friend. I remember how proud he was when I made my first Junior World Cup team. It would’ve been great to see what he thought of all this.”