FOXBOROUGH — The first adjustment was figuring out the helmet, shoulder pads, and the rest of the football player’s occupational armor. “It was awkward,’’ Nate Ebner recalled. “I had to make sure I did everything right the first time I was putting them on.’’
There are no plastic hats in rugby, where the leather scrum cap is a 19th-century vestige. Until Ebner walked into the Ohio State locker room in 2009, he’d been a fly half for Uncle Sam’s junior team and for the Buckeye club squad. Suddenly he had a facemask, a playbook, and a new job description.
That was the first step in his ongoing evolution from back line to secondary as Ebner, a sixth-round surprise, goes about his apprenticeship as special teamer and backup safety. “All of it has been a learning experience,’’ acknowledged Ebner, who already has played in nearly as many games as he did last year in Columbus, Ohio. “I’ve come a long way and I’ve got a lot to learn still, but I’m excited.’’
Ebner could have started his football learning curve a decade ago but decided to follow his father, Jeff, who’d been an imposing player in Des Moines, to the rugby pitch when he was 12. “I didn’t have any outlet to rugby other than him,’’ Ebner said. “There was no way I could have seen myself involved with that without him being part of the situation.’’
Ebner became a superb rugger, seemingly on track to make the Eagles senior team and possibly play in the Olympics when the sport makes its return in 2016. Yet the gridiron tempted him. “I wanted to play football my senior year in high school,’’ said Ebner, who went to Hilliard Davidson in Columbus. “I had gone to some meetings and was thinking about it but I had a junior World Cup coming up so I decided not to because I didn’t want to risk something possibly happening there. We ended up winning the Division 1 state championship so they didn’t need me. But it would have been fun to be a part of that with all my buddies.’’
Once he enrolled at OSU, Ebner knew that his international rugby days were over, at least if he wanted to earn a degree within a normal time frame. “That restraint left me just to play with the club team,’’ he said. “With the drop-off there I was just looking for something more. I was craving something.’’ He’d talked to his father about walking on for football. “Any kid growing up in Columbus would want to be part of something like that,’’ he said.
What made up Ebner’s mind was his father’s death in the wake of a robbery that November at the family’s auto salvage business, where Jeff was brutally beaten to death. (His killer is serving a term of 15 years to life.) Football, with its demanding daily routines, proved to be a therapeutic way for his son to channel his emotions.
“That’s exactly what it was,’’ Ebner said. “I could use football as an outlet to have something else to focus on. I think when something that serious and that tragic happens in someone’s life you have to have something to go to. In a way that kind of saved me because it was something where I could go out aggressively and feel good about, every day working out for it. I didn’t have to talk my feelings out with anyone. I just went to work.’’
Despite his blank football résumé, Ebner made the 2009 roster and found a spot as a backup safety and a special teams dervish. “They just probably saw a hard-working kid that wanted to be a part of it, so they were going to let whatever happens happen,’’ he said. “That’s really all it was.’’
But after a tough loss to Purdue that fall, it was the walk-on rugger who stood up in the locker room and told his teammates about his father’s motto: “Finish Strong,’’ and urged them to crank it up. The Buckeyes, sporting “Finish Strong’’ wristbands, won their final six games, taking the Big Ten title and beating Oregon in the Rose Bowl.
Ebner eventually earned a scholarship, based strictly on his special teams skills, as well as a couple of nicknames — “Leonidas’’ for his beard and heroic work ethic and “War Daddy.’’ Yet while he was used sparingly on defense, he attracted interest from NFL clubs after his Pro Day campus workout raised NFL eyebrows. Ebner had speed, size (6 feet, 210 pounds), and the versatility that comes from playing a game where everyone has to run, tackle, and kick.
“We couldn’t really evaluate his instincts defensively but we saw him in the kicking game,’’ said coach Bill Belichick. “He understands leverage and taking on blockers relative to the ball carrier and blocking relative to the design of the returns, being able to stay with his man in the open field and single blocks out in space, which is not an easy thing to do. It’s all those things in the kicking game at Ohio State and he’s shown that here. That’s why we drafted him.’’
The Patriots took Ebner near the end of the sixth round, the 197th pick overall. Like Mike Vrabel, another former Buckeye who’s now an OSU defensive coach (“A great guy and a good mentor for me’’), Ebner could have played on either side of the ball but safety seemed an apt position. “He’s tough, he’s physical, he’s smart, and he communicates,’’ said Patriots safeties coach Brian Flores. “At the end of the day those are the kinds of traits you need to play at that position.’’
It’s ironic that Ebner’s job is to defend the forward pass, which is illegal in rugby, but he’s seen enough oval balls sent airborne in his direction that it’s not unfamiliar. “In rugby they can kick the ball forward and a lot of times they’ll kick for position,’’ he said. “Good fullbacks and wings don’t let the ball hit the ground so you’ve got to cover the deep ball in a sense. In that way it’s similar.’’
But except for the collision aspect, the games are not the same and Ebner still is mastering the differences. “I enjoy coaching the guy because he comes in and he just tries to improve every day,’’ observed Flores. “He’s always asking questions and he always tries to do the right thing,’’
After a dozen weeks of on-the-job training, Ebner has absorbed enough knowledge of secondary play to be able to share it with his peers. “Nate helps me along when he’s back there,’’ said rookie safety Tavon Wilson. “He brings a lot to the game and the more he plays the better he’s going to get.’’
Accelerated transitions are Ebner’s specialty. “He’s very mature for a young player, at least in my getting to know him,’’ said quarterback Tom Brady, a 199th pick out of the Big Ten who had a fast-forward tutorial of his own a dozen years ago. “To see him develop over the course of the season . . . you always love to see the young players bring that youthful spirit that he has and the excitement of playing and hopefully going out there and playing well.’’
Who knew that Ebner already would have logged more defensive plays in two months as a Patriot than he did in three years as a Buckeye? A smaller roster means more opportunities, wherever they may pop up. “That’s what you’re here to do,’’ Ebner said. “You’ve got to be prepared for those type of things. You’ve just got to be ready for when the time comes.’’ If the time ever comes when Belichick needs someone to put a dropkick through the uprights from 30 yards out at an acute angle, Ebner’s his man. He’s been there, done that — and without a plastic hat.