Nate Ebner knows the end is near.
When someone offers optimism and courtesy, and asks what he’ll be doing when he’s finished playing football within five years, Ebner lowers his shoulder and delivers a hit.
“Five years? Are you crazy?” Ebner said. “I’m gonna be 33 this year and I don’t sit in the pocket like Tom [Brady] does.”
The Giants special teams standout has been simulating car crashes for one defiant decade and counting. He has been sprinting to meetings with helmets and bone and turf. He has been setting up a series of blocks, opening a hole through the unprecedented. Kids who didn’t play high school football don’t walk on at Ohio State. They don’t get handpicked by the most successful coach of all time. They don’t collect three Super Bowl rings. They curse the luck that caromed elsewhere. They lament unrealized potential. They regret wrong decisions and indecision.
They remain anonymous.
“I don’t think you could ever predict something this extraordinary,” said former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel. “This is a story that you’d have to be a real creative writer to imagine.”
Ebner was one of the best youth rugby players in the nation. Rather than join the Hilliard Davidson High School football team, he became the youngest player in the history of Team USA’s Men’s Eagles Sevens, at 17. He made multiple trips to junior rugby world cups — traveling to Wales, Ireland, Dubai and Guyana — and was named MVP of Team USA’s Under-19 and Under-20 squads.
Turning pro wasn’t an option in the States. Ebner considered playing rugby overseas, but he wasn’t willing to sacrifice the life he loved for the sport he loved.
“I didn’t want to live in a country and learn a new language to play rugby. As an American, I wanted to be here,” Ebner said. “As an American in 2007-08, there was no Major League Rugby. There was no real chance at playing in a World Cup. There was no Olympics.
“That was honestly a big part of the decision-making that pushed me to play football.”
Before joining the Big Ten’s best, Ebner was unfulfilled, playing club-level rugby against peers who were pregaming for happy hour.
As a junior, he decided to try out for one of the best football teams in the country. He hadn’t played the sport since middle school, but he believed his elite athleticism gave him a chance to chisel a new path. His father and best friend, Jeff, supported the decision, with the caveat that Ebner work harder than he ever had in his life, that he avoid distractions, that he quit rugby to solely focus on football.
They left the emotional conversation inspired. They were on a mission. And they never spoke again.
Father and son were like many fathers and sons. They bonded through shared interest. They worked out together in a homemade gym, went skiing, went bowling and played backyard badminton. They also beat up would-be robbers who broke into the family-owned junkyard in Springfield, Ohio.
“It was all the time. We’d say, ‘Stop running. You’re trespassing and you’re stealing and we’re gonna call the police,’ and then they’d run,” Ebner said. “Then you’d catch them and the police come, and they’d say, ‘What happened here?’ and it’s like who are you going to believe, the thief or the ones who called the cops? It could get violent at times.”
The family company, now Ebner Sons Auto Salvage, was founded in 1883. Jeff worked there with his father. Nate did the same, spending summers crushing and stacking cars and loading a semi-truck before he had a driver’s license.
Nate often followed his father’s footsteps. Jeff earned a football scholarship to Drake, then left to play rugby at Minnesota, representing Team USA at the 1989 Maccabee Games and winning bronze in Tel Aviv. As an infant, Nate watched his father from the sidelines. At 13, he joined Jeff’s adult-age team before being coached by him in high school.
“They were best friends playing these games together,” said Nancy Pritchett, Ebner’s mother. “Because it was such a part of Jeff, Nate went to rugby games from the time you could carry him in a baby carrier. He just grew up with it as part of his life.”
Ebner’s parents split when he was 3, but his father was a constant presence. When Ebner — raised in Dublin, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus— attended Ohio State, Jeff joined a gym near campus to spend time with his son. When they’d leave, they’d take the same highway home, splitting at the fork.
“I’d just watch his taillights as he drove away and I used to have weird thoughts, like, ‘What would it be like if I didn’t have him anymore?’” Ebner said of his father, a Sunday School principal at Temple Shalom. “I think those thoughts are rooted in the fact that I did appreciate and understand who I had. I knew he was different than other parents. I just always enjoyed being around him and knew he was special.”
Ebner barely recognized his father. His eyes were too swollen.
It was Nov. 13, 2008 — one day after Nate and Jeff spoke for the final time — when Willie Anderson broke into their junkyard and attacked Jeff in his office, beating him with a metal pipe. Jeff suffered a cracked skull and a broken arm. He was placed in an induced coma. One day later, he died at Miami Valley Hospital at the age of 53. Anderson pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. He will be eligible for parole in April 2026.
Ebner delivered the eulogy at his father’s funeral.
“I hope if I ever become a father that I can be half the man to my son that he was to me, and to show the love he showed, which was genuine and real,” Ebner said at the service. “A favorite quote of his that he used only when necessary — usually while we were doing some of our crazy workouts — was, ‘Only the great ones can deal with pain. I know it hurts, but can you fight through it is the question? Aight, Eb. Let’s see what you got. Finish strong.”
Ebner left school. He spent day after day at home, silently hiding under a hoodie.
“Nate was not Nate for a long time,” Pritchett said. “He was in college and he tried to continue to go, but he couldn’t. He had an anthropology course, and they were talking about finding a caveman that had his head bashed in, and he just couldn’t deal with it. He dropped out that quarter. He kind of just stopped life right there.
“But shortly after New Year’s, I said, ‘I have to do something. I can’t just watch him give up.’”
His father’s final words convinced him that he could play in the NFL. His mother’s words — telling Nate that his dad would hate to see him suffering like that, how he still had so much life to live, how he could still make his father proud, how he should begin training for football — enabled him to reach the league.
“I considered not doing anything because we set out to do something and then he’s gone,” Ebner said, “like, ‘Wait, you were supposed to ride with me when I do this. How was I gonna do this without you?’ My mom was a big part in that. She said the right things to me. I’m gonna do what I said I was gonna do and I’m gonna do it for him.
“I was in a bad way until she came and pulled me out. The biggest thing that allowed me to get in the right frame of mind — not only my mom’s words to pull me out — was to live a life that he would be proud of. That was important to me.”
Ebner speaks without anger, without malice, without seeking sympathy. There is only gratitude. The 19 years together were enough to comfort him for a lifetime.
“I had friends who lost their dad at 13. I have friends whose dad chose to walk out of their life and act like they’re not even alive. What would that do to you?” Ebner said. “My dad loved me and I loved him and unfortunately things happened the way they did, but I had a great one. I have an appreciation: it might have only been 19 years, but I had the best one and he spent so much time in my life. It adds up to more than most people who live far longer. I try to be as positive as I can. I’d love for him to be here, but I can’t live in a fantasy world.”
Ebner wanted the dream. Others were satisfied with the fantasy.
A little more than two months after his father’s death, Ebner attended Ohio State football tryouts. Roughly 80 other students participated.
“It was funny, there’s a bunch of kids wearing James Laurinaitis and A.J. Hawk jerseys — who wears a freaking jersey of that team to a tryout?” Ebner said. “It was easy to prove you were one of the better athletes, but the hard part was once they picked about 15 guys. Then it was go time. They really worked you. If you want to be on this team, you’re gonna die.”
Despite last suiting up in the eighth grade, Ebner was the only person to make the cut.
“I vividly remember when we asked him to send his high school film and he didn’t have it,” Tressel said. “Most everyone that wanted to walk on played a little bit and could send a few highlight plays from high school. It wasn’t a fantasy camp. We scrutinized our roster spots really well. But you could just see that he had that steely determination. He earned the respect and the admiration of his team, and it was because of the way he carried himself, the way he prepared, his selflessness, his willingness to sacrifice his body. He earned everything he got, and he took great pride in being able to help the team. He never put any limits on himself. He picked it up fast. He was a smart kid.
“Our importance assigned to special teams was high. We felt that was the edge, that was the difference that could help us be champions. He was all over that. Because it’s a one-play series, the lack of experience is not as impactful.”
Football provided focus. It offered an outlet for rage. It created purpose, even if Ebner still largely kept to himself. He was mourning.
Midway through his first season, No. 7 Ohio State was upset by a 1-5 Purdue team. Afterward, Ebner asked Tressel if he could speak to the team. He shared his father’s mantra — “Finish Strong” — printed on a bracelet given by his aunt, which he still wears. He offered the bracelets to any teammate who wanted one. Everyone did. Ohio State finished the season with six straight wins.
“I had been on the team five or six months and didn’t say a word,” said Ebner, whose autobiography published this summer is titled, “Finish Strong: A Father’s Code and a Son’s Path.” “I went up there, first time talking in front of anybody, especially after my dad died, and I was just extremely honest about the whole thing. [Finish strong] was a [call to] dig deep, don’t quit, silencing the selfish voice that comes to talk to you when things hurt, when you don’t feel like doing things, when your body is begging you to give in. It’s that positive self-talk that you can keep going, to get you through whatever misery you’re in.
“It was something he’d chirp at me when we were doing a hard workout, and after he passed, it became my voice. His voice became mine, and it’s something I’ve carried with me.”
Playing alongside five-star teammates, Ebner’s inexperience left him with few snaps at defensive back. The limited role made him consider transferring to a Division II school for more playing time, but an assistant coach convinced him he could make a career out of the overlooked third phase of the game.
“It wasn’t how I scripted it up, but if the goal was to get into the league and that meant through special teams, ‘F— it. Let’s go,’” Ebner said. “By senior year, I knew what I was doing. I was gonna light it up. I was gonna make every play. All I needed was an opportunity.”
Words were hard to find. It was the 2012 NFL Draft. Bill Belichick was on the other end of the phone, asking an emotional Ebner if he’d like to join the Patriots.
Four years later, words struggled to arrive again. The former sixth-round pick informed the legendary coach he was planning to miss nearly all of training camp to try out for a spot on the 2016 Olympic rugby team.
“It was hard to say that to Bill because it’s Bill, but he supported me right away,” Ebner said. “He knew who he drafted, what my background was. He’s as patriotic as anyone I’ve ever met. He knew what it would mean for me to represent the country, the sport I love. He knew [about] my dad.
“I was so convicted in doing that, had he said no, I’d say, ‘Sorry you don’t want to support me, but this is something I have to do or I’m not gonna be able to sleep at night.’”
Ebner had already earned Belichick’s respect, contributing to a Super Bowl title. In 2014, Belichick said that Ebner was “maybe in the top-five percent all-time of players that I’ve coached, from where they were in college to how they grew in the NFL.”
When Ebner tried out for Team USA, he hadn’t played rugby in about seven years. USA Rugby coach Mike Friday gave him a “10 or 20 percent” chance to make the team. Belichick and his staff sported No. 12 Ebner rugby shirts at Patriots practice, while the long shot starred in Brazil. The U.S. nearly defied expectations, too, falling one point short of reaching the medal round in the first Olympic rugby competition in 92 years.
Following the Games, Ebner returned for the final week of training camp. That season, he was named an All-Pro and won the second of his three Super Bowl titles. In 2018, he earned his third contract with the Patriots, signing for $5 million over two seasons. Last year, Ebner’s longtime special teams coach, Joe Judge, brought him to New York and named him a team captain. He was involved in a team-high 328 special teams snaps.
“I had growing confidence, a stubbornness to not go away so easily just because someone doesn’t have confidence in me or think highly of me,” Ebner said of his career. “I’m not gonna stop because of their opinion. Ultimately, being really centered in who I am and knowing what I’m capable of, and knowing that if I’m willing to put in the work that I can do whatever I want to achieve.”
Ebner’s Olympic experience — he is one of seven players to win a Super Bowl and participate in the Olympics, and the only person to ever do it in the same season — wasn’t enough. He wanted another chance to win a medal, another chance to dance with his first love.
“There’s gonna come a day where I’m gonna sit on the couch and all I can do is think about what was and what could have been, and I don’t like what could have been,” Ebner said this summer. “If I can, I must.”
Ebner was a free agent in early 2021 who had just finished his ninth NFL season and recently had undergone knee surgery when he signed up for four-plus months of rugby training, dedicating himself to a sport that doesn’t pay the bills and a team that couldn’t guarantee him a spot.
Just weeks before the COVID-delayed Games began, Ebner conceded that lingering knee issues would not allow him to travel to Tokyo.
“It was extremely disappointing and frustrating,” Ebner said following a recent Giants practice. “I put a lot into that. It’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime type of deals. It was hard to accept that I needed to say it’s not happening and move on and get ready for the football season.
“It’s been hard the last six months with the rugby and the injuries and trying to play another season, not being here while everyone else was. To stay in the moment and not get ahead of yourself, that’s something I’ve tried to lean on when I catch myself wandering. Be present. When you’re in the present moment and you just focus on that, everything in life gets a lot easier.”
One day, he will hit the pitch again. A minority owner of the New England Free Jacks of Major League Rugby, Ebner could join the fledgling league or the Rugby World Cup or a Saturday morning pickup game.
The mind is wandering. Be present. Preparation for Week 5 is underway. Another kickoff awaits.
“I think when you stay in that tunnel vision in this game, in this year, in this moment, before you know it, the years add up and here we are in Year 10,” Ebner said. “It’s kind of crazy to say, from where I came from to now, I am here in Year 10.”
Aight, Eb. Let’s see what you got. Finish strong.