While he would revel in the thrill of participating in another Olympics, Ebner is determined to enjoy more success than he did in his first experience. In 2016, the USA lost to eventual gold medalist Fiji, 24-19, in the Rugby Sevens Competition, denying the team an opportunity to join the field of eight (from an original group of 12) in the knockout round. It was a mark they missed by just one point.
“Not getting a medal in that last Olympics is something that really bothers me,” Ebner said. “When I reflect on what’s important in my life, if I’m being honest, that was high priority. People say, ‘You were the guy who won a gold medal in the Olympics,’ and I’m like, ‘No, we didn’t win a medal.’ Not winning a medal, especially when I thought that we had the team to do it, and as I look at the growth in the last five years, we definitely have an even better chance this time around. It’s something I would really like to be a part of.”
Ebner is 32, but it’s not just his age that separates him from many of his fellow rugby players. He has played in 143 NFL games, including 16 in the postseason. A special teams standout since entering the NFL in 2012, Ebner played on the Patriots teams that defeated Seattle in Super Bowl XLIX, Atlanta in Super Bowl LI and the Rams in Super Bowl LIII. He was on injured reserve when New England lost to Philadelphia in Super Bowl LII. Ebner joined the Giants as a free agent last year. He participated in a team-high 328 special teams snaps and tied for second with six special teams tackles.
“I’ve been playing NFL football for the last (nine) years and that’s not easy on your body,” Ebner said. “Over 30 in the NFL is an old person. In rugby, there are some older guys, but really it’s not about me being 32 in rugby, it’s the journey I’ve had. There are guys who are 24 and they’ve had all kinds of injuries. Everyone’s personal situation is different with their body and their age and the wear they’ve had to endure, so hopefully I can hold up. That’s obviously something I’m going to have to manage.”
If anyone knows how to do that properly, it’s Ebner. He made his first athletic mark playing rugby in his native Ohio. Ebner was a standout on the junior national team and played in three Junior World Cups. After playing football in the eighth grade, he didn’t put pads on again until he made the team as a walk-on at Ohio State in 2009, the first of three seasons with the Buckeyes. “I kind of wanted to play football my senior year in high school,” Ebner said. “I chose not to because of the Junior World Cup.”
Ebner is one of just seven players in NFL history to participate in the Olympics and also win a pro football championship. He is the only player to accomplish that feat in the same year.
Rugby was an Olympic men’s medal sport early in the 20th century. The USA were back-to-back gold medalists in 1920 and 1924, but the sport was dropped by the International Olympic Committee following the 1924 games in Paris and did not return until the games in Rio 92 years later. Ebner was not going to enjoy its return as a spectator.
“For a sport that I grew up playing not being in the Olympics basically ever and then it’s all of a sudden in the Olympics the year I’m 27 … the stars really aligned,” Ebner said. “I had played that sport my whole life, I was in my physical peak. Rugby is very close to my heart and obviously to represent the United States on the Olympic stage is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. When you look at the culmination of all those different things, to me I felt convicted, I felt pulled in that direction as if it was something I really had to do. I felt I would feel an extreme amount of regret had I not gone to try that.
“I want the USA to experience rugby the way I have, and I think winning a medal in the Olympics is a great step toward that, that recognition. When I really assess everything, that’s a big motivation to me. Even if I didn’t make the team, helping the team get to a place where they need to be going into the Olympics to win a medal, that’s a big motivation. There will come a time when physically I’m not capable of doing any of this stuff. When that day comes, I won’t do it, but while I can I will.”
The Patriots backed Ebner’s Olympics trip to Brazil. Before he committed to trying a repeat, he wanted to ensure Judge was similarly supportive.
“Once I settled into where I was mentally, I had that conversation with Joe and he was very receptive and understanding,” Ebner said. “Obviously, he understands my background as a rugby player, what I did in 2016 and before that. I will say, it did help that I came back that season after the Olympics and had a stellar year, a really, really good year (a career-high 19 special teams tackles). I was physically fit and I was moving well, and I couldn’t attribute that to anything but playing rugby for six months. I think that bodes well when it comes to the argument for letting me go play. I came back in really good shape and played really well. At the end of the day, it was just a conversation we had to have.
“It definitely eases the mind for me to really go out for something when I have the support of the franchise behind me to go ahead and go for a once-in-a-lifetime – luckily for me, a twice-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me to represent our country. I’ve been a part of nine NFL training camps, I’m pretty familiar with it. I think it speaks to the trust they have in me as a player, what I understand about the game and training camp and where I need to be that that trust is there. Just having that support is huge for me when I’m pursuing this that I can come back and know that they’re riding with me, if you will.”
If he makes the team, Ebner should be able to catch up quickly after he departs the Olympics and reports to the Giants. It’s not like he would be going to Japan to visit the Imperial Palace or sample local sashimi. Indeed, he will be engaged in an athletic endeavor that might be more challenging than training camp.
“The physical, cardiovascular demands of this game are through the roof relative to football and it’s not even close,” Ebner said. “We don’t get to stop every six seconds after the play is over with. It’s just absurd. (In 2016), physically what it took for really six to eight weeks to get myself where I needed to be was extremely difficult. At least this time around I know what to expect physically because I’ve been through it. Last time I played, it had been five years competitively (since he had played at a high level). I’m hoping I’m in a better place this time around than I was five years ago, but I’m also five years older.”
He has a long road to travel, but Ebner has a vision how he wants his journey to unfold.
“Obviously, you have to assess where you’re at,” he said, “but you would hope within a week of competition I’m back and I’m in shoulder pads and a helmet and I’m out there trying to get us ready to win some football games.”