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Memory of late father stokes Nate Ebner’s Olympic rugby quest

As he sweats his way through training with the US rugby team, Nate Ebner carries a message from his father — “Finish Strong” — on an ever-present wristband.
As he sweats his way through training with the US rugby team, Nate Ebner carries a message from his father — “Finish Strong” — on an ever-present wristband.Stan Grossfeld/globe staff/Boston Globe

CHULA VISTA, Calif. — The wristband on Nate Ebner’s right arm bears a powerful message.

“Finish Strong,” it says.

Ebner, 27, a special teams standout for the Patriots, already has a Super Bowl ring. Now he’s hoping to help the US team win an Olympic medal in rugby.

Long before he thought about stepping foot on the gridiron, Ebner was a rugby prodigy — a two-time MVP of the USA Rugby team at the Junior World Cup and an All-American at Ohio State. He did not play football until his junior year in college.

Representing the US at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in August, he says, “would be a dream come true,” and a great tribute to his father, who died in 2008.

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On a late afternoon in Chula Vista, Ebner is dripping with sweat after the two-a-day cardio-laden workouts. Patriots practices were never this exhausting, he says, even in the dog days of August.

“You see how long we are running around out there? It’s no joke,” says Ebner. “I don’t know why I put myself through this pain. It’s so painful. See how tired everyone is?”

Players trudge up a hill to the dorms to shower. Ebner, a rookie of sorts, has to carry the blocking pads. But he’s not complaining.

“He’s a good dude,” says teammate Danny Barrett. “He’s explosive, he’s big, he’s fast, and he’s strong.”

Head coach Mike Friday says Ebner has been a surprise.

“The rugby background he already has, and the fact that he has complemented himself in becoming a better NFL player, it’s worked in his favor,’’ says Friday. “Once he starts to hone his skills and he keeps improving at the rate he’s improving, he’s got a very good chance . . . to make the squad.

“As an athlete, and in terms of attitude and humility and the way he conducts himself, he’s been absolutely first class.”

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Ebner’s drive to succeed is ingrained in his heart and written on the wristband he wears every day.

“Finish Strong” is a message about love between father and son.

Playing and fighting

Jeff Ebner and his wife Nancy split up when their son, Nate, was just 3, but the parting was amicable. Sometimes Jeff would drive nearly two hours across Ohio just to have dinner with his son.

Jeff, who played rugby at the University of Minnesota, was Nate’s hero, role model, and best friend.

Jeff Ebner and young son Nate on vacation in Florida around 1993.
Jeff Ebner and young son Nate on vacation in Florida around 1993.courtesy nate ebner/Globe Staff

“We were super tight,” says Nate. “I would put my father-son relationship against anyone’s. He taught me how to be a man.”

Nate first picked up a rugby ball at age 6, and it was love at first scrum.

“When most kids were watching the NFL, I was watching Super Rugby,” he says. “I played other sports, but by eighth grade I started getting serious about rugby. I just gravitated toward it.”

His father played for the Scioto Valley men’s team in Columbus, Ohio, and young Nate played with him.

“They never babied me, especially my dad,’’ Nate insists. “He was one of the tougher dudes on the block.”

Jeff was a Sunday school principal at Temple Shalom in Columbus, but on the rugby pitch they called him “Cannonball” because he could power the ball across the try line. He owned Ebner & Sons, an auto reclamation business in Springfield, Ohio. In the summers, Nate worked the loader, smashing cars and stacking them to sell the scrap metal.

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At the end of the day, father and son lifted weights together and ran the hills.

“I didn’t even need friends,” says Nate. “Me and him did everything together. We’d work, we would train, and then Tuesday and Thursday we’d go to Columbus and play rugby.

“We were very competitive in the weight room. As I got stronger, I was coming for him.”

Nate Ebner remains a workout fanatic, whether he’s in Foxborough or here in Chula Vista, Calif.
Nate Ebner remains a workout fanatic, whether he’s in Foxborough or here in Chula Vista, Calif.stan grossfeld/globe staff

There were plenty of bumps along the road.

“I remember one time we went to a tournament in Savannah, Ga.,’’ Ebner says. “I’m 15½ with a temporary license and he made me drive.”

In the car, Ebner, who was then just 5 feet 8 inches and 140 pounds, taunted his old man that he could take him in a fight.

“At first he laughs it off, but then he says, ‘All right, pull the car over,’ ” remembers Ebner. “It was one of those two-lanes in Georgia, and he was like, ‘Square up, ’cause we’re gonna go right now.’

“So we squared up, and I was on my back within five seconds. Pinned down, it was over. I just had to swallow my pride.”

The Ebners could dish it out when thieves targeted the junkyard when it was closed.

“Every Sunday, somebody was in there,” says Ebner. “We would put cleats on and wear mouthpieces and stretch before we went in, like we warmed up. They’d either try to run away or fight. If they fought, it’s a real live fight right there.

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“We didn’t see the same face twice, I will say that.”

Nancy confirms the story.

“Yeah, he and Jeff would go after the people that were breaking in when he was working there,” she says. “It’s a little like the wild, wild West is what it was.”

Making the US Olympic rugby team would be a “dream come true,” says Nate Ebner.
Making the US Olympic rugby team would be a “dream come true,” says Nate Ebner.stan grossfeld/globe staff/Boston Globe

A tragic turn

For young Ebner, the hard work and fighting paid off. When he was 16, he attended the USA Developmental Rugby camp and became the youngest player on the under-19 team that traveled to a Junior World Cup tournament in Dubai.

He didn’t play football at Hilliard Davidson (Ohio) High School. “They didn’t need me anyways,” says Ebner. “They won the Division 1 title.’’

Then at Ohio State, as an All-American playing club rugby, he felt frustrated.

“If we lost a game, I felt like nobody cared,” he says. “I talked with my dad. I said, ‘I work too hard not to feel that everyone around me wants to win as much as I do.’ ”

With two years of college left, Ebner couldn’t travel internationally with USA Rugby, so he decided to switch gears.

On Nov. 12, 2008, he met his father at the Athletic Club of Columbus, and they worked out together on the rowing machines. As usual, his father pushed him to excel.

Nate Ebner considered his late father his best friend.
Nate Ebner considered his late father his best friend.courtesy nate ebner/Globe Staff

“He said, ‘Come on now, we didn’t do these first three sets so hard to get to here and then quit,’ ” says Ebner. “I just remember him yelling in my ear, ‘Come on, finish strong, you’re almost there. Finish strong.’ ”

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Over dinner, Ebner told his father that he wanted to play football for Ohio State and then in the NFL.

“He said, ‘If your goal is to play in the NFL, then let’s do it,’ ” says Ebner. “ ‘But if you only want to play for Ohio State, that’s not a good enough reason to throw away your rugby career.’ ”

His father advised Ebner to drop rugby and concentrate on football.

“And then everything happened,’’ says Ebner.

The next day, Jeff Ebner, 53, was beaten in a robbery attempt at Ebner & Sons. He suffered severe head injuries and was airlifted to Miami Valley Hospital, where he died the following day.

Nate was just 19 years old.

“I didn’t just lose my Dad,” he says. “I lost my best friend.’’

Willie Anderson pleaded guilty to one count of murder and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. He is eligible for parole in 2025.

A heartbroken Ebner told his “Finish Strong” story at his father’s funeral. His aunt had “Finish Strong” wristbands made, and Ebner has worn them ever since (though NFL rules forbid him from wearing them during games.)

“Every time I put it on, I take a minute to think about him and the journey you are on,” says Ebner. “I think about him every single day.”

After the murder, Ebner talked to no one. He dropped out of Ohio State and wore a hooded sweatshirt to hide his grief.

“I just wasn’t there,” he says.

Nate Ebner (left) and US rugby teammate Danny Barrett go at it in training.
Nate Ebner (left) and US rugby teammate Danny Barrett go at it in training.stan grossfeld/globe staff/Boston Globe

For more than a month, he just sat in his mother’s home and played Xbox, head down, hood up.

“My mom pulled me out of it,” says Ebner. “She says, ‘I’m not going to let you throw your life away. Your Dad wouldn’t want you to act like this. You’ve got to make it mean something.’ ”

Ebner took his mother’s words to heart. As a junior in 2009, he made the Ohio State football team as a walk-on and became a quiet leader.

After a hard loss to Purdue, Ebner shared his story in the locker room. Every player chose to wear a “Finish Strong” wristband. The Buckeyes reeled off six straight wins, including a Rose Bowl victory over Oregon on Jan. 1, 2010.

For a Sept. 11 anniversary home game in 2010, he ran the American flag out in front of 110,000 fans at Ohio State.

“Just to feel that energy,’’ he says. “It just went through my whole body. It was crazy.”

Ebner was voted the Buckeyes’ most inspirational player and the team’s outstanding special teams player in 2011.

Football, in some respects, saved his life.

“I was in a bad place and I wanted to do some bad stuff,” he says. “Luckily I didn’t do anything stupid.”

Blending two sports

After being selected by the Patriots in the sixth round of the 2012 NFL Draft, Ebner has carved out a nice NFL career. In March, he signed a two-year extension that keeps him in a Patriots uniform through the 2017 season. The deal is worth $3.7 million plus added incentives, according to his agent, Sean Stellato.

Ebner says the Patriots and coach Bill Belichick have supported his Olympic dream wholeheartedly.

“I want to say thank you to the Patriots from top to bottom,” he says.

Did Belichick tell Ebner to bring a gold medal back to Foxborough?

“No,” he says with a laugh. “I think after our conversation he was receptive to where I was coming from. If I didn’t do it, how much would I regret not doing it? So we talked about that.

“He knows I’m going to work as hard as I can to make it happen and that when I come back I’ll be 100 percent New England Patriot. I might be a little lighter but I’ll be ready to run, I can tell you that.’’

While casual observers may see the similarities between the two games, Ebner says rugby and football are very different.

On special teams, he “empties the tank” on every kickoff with a 70-yard dash. But after less than 15 seconds, he’s back on the bench.

“The cool thing about rugby is you can’t just be out there to block people or tackle people or to just pass the ball,’’ he says. “You’ve got to pass, run, tackle, block, everything. Everybody’s got to do everything. You’ve got to be cohesive, but that’s the sport of rugby. Football is a very specific job.”

Forward passes are illegal in rugby. Tackling is more open-field. “It isn’t like third and 1,” says Ebner, who recently played with the US team in Singapore and scored two tries against Portugal in the HSBC Singapore Sevens Bowl semifinals.

Watch his first two career tries here:

He likes not wearing a helmet and pads.

“It feels great, man,” he says. “My dad always said the only protection you get on the rugby field is the protection you build in the weight room.”

He says rugby players are a completely different breed.

“The lack of ego in the game of rugby is so awesome,” he says. “It’s such a humble sport.”

He’s also getting messages from some Patriots teammates, including safety Devin McCourty.

“He said the only reason I’m going to play rugby is because I’m too afraid to see him in the offseason training program,” says Ebner.

Ebner, who will return to Patriots preseason camp in August, is one of the team’s hardest workers. Twice he’s earned a coveted parking spot at Gillette Stadium for offseason training excellence. And he’s not as rusty at rugby as some might think. He has played touch rugby each year in the offseason.

But there are no guarantees that he’ll make the final men’s sevens team.

“Hell no,” says the 6-foot, 205-pound workout fanatic. “But if I fall short, it won’t be because I didn’t hustle. To be part of the Olympics in a sport you grew up with and love? If you’re competitive, how do you not want to do that?”

And if he needs any extra incentive, all he has to do is gaze at his right wrist.

“I’ve had a couple of weird instances where I feel like my Dad’s presence is around,” says Ebner. “I just think it’s because I’m thinking of him that much.”

Nate Ebner’s Olympic dream is almost within grasp.
Nate Ebner’s Olympic dream is almost within grasp.stan grossfeld/globe staff/Boston Globe

Stan Grossfeld can be reached at grossfeld@globe.com.