You are here
The stars may be aligned for former U20 and Ohio State star Nate Ebner to finish his season with the New England Patriots and make a push for the Rio Olympics. Ebner is currently a valued member of New England's special teams unit, but in a previous life he was one helluva rugby player.
Any words linking Ebner to a rugby comeback are pure speculation, of course, and they should stay that way, for now. No reason to put any undue pressure on him or USA coach Mike Friday by asking what may come in a couple of months. But the timeline actually lines up pretty nicely for Ebner’s potential Olympic inclusion, if the four-year NFL veteran decided to make a go of it.
Friday has said the process of getting truly 7s fit takes around eight weeks, though we’ve seen guys come from unprofessional setups and make the team in less time. Ebner, coming from professional football, might have a smaller window.
The Patriots are atop their division and likely headed to the playoffs. Their season could end as early as Jan. 9 and as late as Feb. 7. No matter when the Pats finish, it would be a stretch for Ebner to get in the mix by the Wellington/Sydney leg of the Series the last week of January and first week of February.
However, and how exciting would this be, Ebner could conceivably get in good enough shape to impress at the high performance camp leading into Las Vegas and Vancouver. If he did, it would give him six tournaments and three or four camps to regain form and earn his keep.
Friday and his staff don’t have to make an initial recommendation of a 30-athlete pool to the Olympic Games Selection Committee until June 24th, and they don’t have to settle on a team of 12 until July 17th. So, on the front end, the NFL and Olympic deadlines jibe with each other.
On the back end, the rugby portion of the Games end Aug. 12. NFL teams typically start training camp the last week or two of July, but the first round of cuts isn’t until Sept. 1. So Ebner would likely miss the annual round of spring Organized Team Activities and a week or two of training camp, which isn’t unheard for a veteran. However, in the age of players having clauses in their contracts restricting them from riding motorcycles, playing pickup basketball or engaging in other seemingly dangerous activities that could cause injury, the likelihood of an NFL team granting someone they pay a base salary of $660,000 the blessing to play rugby seems farfetched.
But Ebner is a free agent at the end of the season, and therefore unencumbered by any contractual obligations. He’s made over $2 million base salary as a professional football player, and he’s past the threshold for lifetime benefits from the NFL – a little talked about benchmark that is massive for players’ lives after football.
So if Ebner wanted to put off signing with a team until after the Olympics so he could play rugby, it’d be perfectly doable. And a team might even be willing to sign him before then and let him miss OTAs and the beginning of training camp. No one would blame him for not risking it, though, and signing a handsome contract and continuing to squirrel away lots of money while chasing a second Super Bowl. But it’s not unprecedented for players to leave the NFL earlier than they were made to.
In the 2015 offseason alone, two 49ers younger than Ebner retired voluntarily – Anthony Davis, 25, and Chris Borland, 24 – and former Heisman candidate quarterback and first-round-pick of the Tennessee Titans Jake Locker, 26 like Ebner, also hung up the boots.
Even if Ebner weren’t picked up immediately following the Olympics, he could certainly work his way back into the league later. In 2012 Husein Abdullah took a year off to travel the world and make a pilgrimage to Mecca with his brother, Hamza. While Hamza, two years older than his brother, never played in the NFL again after the hiatus, Husein signed with the Kansas City Chiefs the very next season and is still playing for them.
The point is, there are no contractual obligations holding Ebner back from making a run at the 7s team. It wouldn’t be unprecedented for someone in his position in the league – with millions of dollars earned and the security of an NFL pension and life-long benefits – to walk away and come back, or even walk away for good.
Could he make the team? Well, the Eagles aren’t short on talent these days, but Ebner is special. He may be the most dominant player ever to lace up at the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championships, and that list includes current Eagle captain Madison Hughes, Brett Thompson, Thretton Palamo, Blaine Scully, Danny Barrett and more.
Even if it’s a longshot, the prospect of Ebner making a triumphant Olympic return to rugby, it’s sure fun to think about.