If NBC was wondering how it might sell rugby, back in the Olympics for the first time in 92 years, to the U.S. viewing public, it received a tidy gift in bearded and burly Nate Ebner July 18. Most in America are not only unfamiliar with the game, which was hatched from soccer and begat football, but downright confused by rugby’s scrums, rucks, mauls and other bits of violent exotica.
Ebner, whose day job involves playing special teams for the NFL’s New England Patriots, was selected for the U.S. team. According to ESPN, Ebner took a leave of absence from the Patriots in May to try out for the national team and is scheduled to rejoin the NFL squad after the Aug. 6-11 Olympic rugby competition. (Rugby “sevens”, a faster-paced version of the game, with 7 players per side, not 15, will be contested in Rio.)
Ebner grew up watching his father Jeff play rugby. Jeff was murdered in a robbery of the family auto scrapyard in 2008, when he was 53 and his son was almost 20.
At that point, Ebner was an All-American rugby player at Ohio State with a lifelong dream of playing in the NFL. After his father’s murder, he set out to do it—walking on to the Buckeyes team as a junior, and getting selected by the Patriots in the 2012 draft.
He won a Super Bowl with the Pats in 2015, and the club re-signed him to a two-year contract in May, according to ESPN, a deal worth $2.4 million.
I’m fairly shocked that the team-first Patriots are allowing Ebner to pursue a freelance goal, even one that involves representing your country. A statement from Ebner’s agent, appearing in the Boston Herald, says the Olympian is “forever grateful” to the team for letting him compete.
According to USA Today, Ebner will join Herschel Walker as the only man to participate in the Olympics after already playing in the NFL.
NBC plans to stream all events live from Rio, representing 6,700 hours of content. As executive producer Jim Bell said recently, “if you like archery, you can watch archery.” Same goes for rugby.
Rugby was last played in the Olympics in 1924. It was the 15-per-side version, and the gold medal went to….yes, the U.S. There were but three teams in the competition for that Olympics—the Americans, Romania and host France. And we won.
Down in Rio, the U.S. “Eagles” play Argentina and then Brazil Aug. 9, and Fiji Aug. 10, and move on to the knockout round if they can win a few matches. A gold medal may be close to impossible, with the likes of New Zealand, Fiji and South Africa in the running. But it seems any team with Ebner on it has at least a fair shot at coming out on top.