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This is a big deal. Not to trounce on anyone else, but this is not 32-year-old Chris Wyles coming to 7s after the Premiership season concludes, this is not Thretton Palamo leaving Saracens, this is not Kevin Swiryn coming out of retirement, and this is not Ahman Green cheesing for some photos.
For several reasons, this is much bigger. Outside of qualifying for the Olympics themselves, the announcement of Nate Ebner’s return to rugby might be the biggest American rugby news this century. Not just because he’s going to draw attention, but yeah, sure, because he’s going to draw attention.
Ebner is a Super Bowl champion and a current member of the New England Patriots. As I write this, less than 24 hours after news broke, the big sports media outlets have already published more words about the Eagles and the Olympics than probably the last six months combined. The word count will only exponentially grow as time progresses. When he makes the team for a World Series leg, ESPN will write about it. When he scores tries, USA Today will write about it. When he makes the Olympic team, your high school football coach will hear about it and think of you.
It’s also massive news because Ebner has a real chance to make an impact on this team. After torn ACLs suffered by Swiryn and Brett Thompson put them behind the eight-ball, the Eagles are in need of quality depth at both the center and forward positions, where Ebner is most likely to factor in.
He was better at the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship than current Eagle Palamo. He was better than Peter Tiberio. Better than just about anyone, though I’d listen to an argument about Madison Hughes. He is a special talent.
Sure, he’s got to get into shape, but let’s not forget how quickly Ahmad Harajly went from a nobody at an identification camp, who had been playing DII club rugby, to the Eagles roster. Let’s not forget how Palamo and Wyles, in the last year, have jumped from 15s to 7s on short notice. Ebner hasn’t been sitting on a couch eating potato chips – he’s been playing in the NFL. He’s not 7s fit, but he’s fitter right now, at this minute, than you or just about anyone else in the American rugby community.
Yes, his skills have to come back around. He’s been out of practice, largely, but even after four years in the pros, he’s still played more rugby than football in his lifetime. And the level of professionalism he brings to the table, coming from the tightly-run ship that is New England, will make him a quick study under Mike Friday.
And perhaps the greatest attribute Ebner brings to the table, aside from the 4.4 speed, elite tackling ability and an NFL body, the bit that makes me most confident he’ll be a big-time contributor for the Eagles sooner than later and on the Olympic team barring injury, is his indomitable will.
Ebner’s done the unthinkable his whole sporting life. The guy played men’s club ball as a teenager. Having not played organized football since the age of eight, he walked onto one of the most storied college football teams in the country, earning a scholarship his second season. Without recording a single start at OSU, Ebner was drafted. Sixth-round picks get cut all the time, but Ebner has already had a career longer than the league average.
Any of that sound run of the mill? That’s because Ebner’s not a run-of-the-mill kinda guy. He’s special. And he’s a badass. And now he’s back playing rugby again.