Team USA Olympian Nate Ebner received plenty of attention for his return to the sport of rugby throughout 2016. Not long after signing a new, two-year deal with the NFL’s New England Patriots, the Ohio State University graduate joined up with Men’s Eagles Sevens Head Coach Mike Friday’s camp in the final stages of Rio 2016 Olympic Summer Games preparation.
He earned his first cap on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series in Singapore, two months prior to the official naming of the men’s Rugby Sevens team for Rio. There were 25 additional athletes in the final player pool – including captain and Series-leading points scorer Madison Hughes and youngsters Ben Pinkelman and ConRoy Smith – but Ebner’s drive to realize his Olympic dream and commitment to reaching the team’s standards of fitness and skill resulted in his acquisition of one of 12 Team USA jerseys.
Once the Games were through, Ebner did it all over again, reclaiming his spot on the Patriots’ roster for the 2016 season. About five months later, he has the opportunity to win another world championship at the Feb. 5 Super Bowl. Forgive him, then, if he is not able to stay up late on the American east coast to watch his Eagles teammates when they are in Wellington or Sydney.
“I honestly have so much on my plate with preparing for the Falcons and the Super Bowl and getting the family down there,” Ebner said. “I’ll definitely keep an eye on what the results are. I’m always thinking about my guys; sending the group chats, keeping up with everybody. They’ve been keeping up with me and it’s been great.”
Now-retired Eagle Chris Wyles was also on the Rio team, a player who had been in the Sevens camp back when Ebner was introduced to it. The Patriot was just a teenager at the time, but had about as many years of rugby experience – if not more – as the majority of his teammates. The makeup of the player pool, he said, has changed in a positive way in the decade or so since.
“The average age was much older back then,” Ebner said. “Probably around 30 or 31. I would say years of experience couldn’t have been more than two or three years on average. I figured the average age in camp [pre-Rio] to be 27, and there were a lot of young guys there with plenty of experience.”
High school and collegiate rugby players Alec Gletzer, 25, and 24-year-old Anthony Welmers made their Series debuts in the first two legs of this year’s season, while 21-year-old Connor Wallace-Sims is set to pull on the jersey Friday evening (Saturday in Wellington). A slew of younger athletes just recently returned from a USA Falcons developmental tour, as well, and are inching their way closer to the Series.
“That speaks volumes for, to me, where USA Rugby is, especially our sevens program: the sheer difference in experience level compared to a decade ago,” Ebner said. “Add that with the average age, and there are a lot of good signs, if you ask me.
“That’s what you want to see out of your sport: younger guys who have played throughout high school, played in college, and have nearly a decade of experience under their belt and only in their early 20s.”
Team USA rebounded from missing medal-round qualification in Rio to finish as high as it could in ninth, and the Eagles replicated a similarly-disappointing pool result at Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens to win the opening leg’s Challenge Trophy. With staff and captaincy turnover in Cape Town – in addition to a less-experienced squad of 12 – the Eagles reached a fifth-place Semifinal.
Ebner’s Patriots also dealt with adversity in the opening stages of the regular season, going without quarterback Tom Brady for four weeks. Yet they were able to progress through the challenges and reach another Super Bowl. The camaraderie of any team can have an effect on results, and Ebner knows first-hand how the Eagles have been able to stick to the task.
“I think it says more about the type of team you have; the type of team that can play well when things don’t go their way and still want to come out, play, and win rather than a team that only wants to compete if it’s for a Cup,” Ebner said. “It says a lot about the group of guys we have in our program and the standard Coach Friday holds for those guys.
“When things don’t go your way on day one, it doesn’t mean pack up and go home. There’s a lot of opportunity to get better versus some of the best competition in the world. To miss that opportunity and not play as best you can on day two or three, you’re wasting it. It says a lot about the guys.”
Though this weekend’s Wellington fixture list is scheduled favorably for the United States, do not expect Ebner to stray from routine. He is readying for the game ahead of him just as the Eagles are focused on Wellington and the upcoming Sydney leg of the Series, with mutual support between the Eagles teammates.
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