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Pandemic creates double scrum for Nate Ebner

New England Patriots defensive back Nate Ebner (43)

New England Patriots defensive back Nate Ebner (43) after an NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019, in Foxborough, Mass. The Chiefs won 23-16. (Aaron Doster via AP) Credit: AP/Aaron Doster

Most NFL players are concerned about how the new societal rules intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are going to affect their upcoming football season.

Nate Ebner has two sports to worry about.

The new Giants special teams ace who joined the team a few weeks ago is also part owner of the New England Free Jacks, a team in Major League Rugby. That league announced last week that the remainder of its season, which usually runs from early March to late May, has been canceled.

“Obviously it’s unfortunate for the guys and the fans, especially this being the first year for the Free Jacks,” Ebner said on a conference call on Tuesday. “I feel bad for the fan base and the people that have been waiting to see them go out there and play. I feel bad for everyone in the country. Everyone has a situation that they are having to deal with.”

Owning a team (or at least a part of it) has, Ebner said, been “cool.” It’s the culmination of a lifetime in rugby for the Ohio native who was a member of the 2016 United States Olympic team in the sport. In fact, he didn’t play football, only rugby, throughout high school and all the way to his junior year at Ohio State.

“It’s a good opportunity for me to help with exposure to the game, but also go full circle in my life,” he said of his stake in the team.

He also said that if there was a Major League Rugby when he was in college, he might not have even considered the NFL.

“I think not having a professional future in the United States to play rugby was a major reason I’m playing football,” he said. “That, to me, was a major part of my decision when I decided to walk on at Ohio State. Knowing that a younger Nate might have the aspirations of being a professional rugby player, that they have the ability to play professionally here in the United States and not have to go to a different continent, that’s pretty awesome.”

Ebner is more an investor than a hands-on owner in the Free Jacks. He said his attention these days is solely on his football career and his new NFL team. But it’s clear that his passion for rugby is never far from the surface.

“I could go on and on about that for a while,” he said with near giddiness when asked about rugby. “Rugby played a big part in me being able to transition to football. There are some similarities, the tackling, that aspect of both sports. You do a lot of tackling but even the tackling can be very different when you look at the details of it. They are both very different sports, I think, the mental side of football versus the flow and feel of rugby. Rugby can be very like basketball, you have to feel out the situation. Is it a fast break or is it a half court set piece? That’s kind of how rugby is. Football is very studied and you need to recognize something that has come up before or a formation or this or that and remember checks. It’s a very different head game.

“They’re obviously two very physical sports, but at the end of the day they are very different as well.”

And these days, of course, they are both being affected by the pandemic.

Ebner was especially jolted by the postponement of the 2020 Olympics, having known and played with many of the men who were going to be vying for that team and that opportunity. The Games have been rescheduled for next summer.

“I hope things settle down and everything goes back to normal,” he said. “Right now, [rugby players] just need to figure out things on a weekly basis, on a daily basis, like the rest of the world is, like the rest of the country is…  With that being on pause, they need to just make the most of what the situation is and that’s rest. Take the opportunity to rest and get their bodies right and hopefully get everybody healthy. It’s tough but hopefully everything works out in a year from now.”

He's also hoping the NFL’s timeline isn’t affected as severely. Ebner, like everyone in the league, isn’t sure when he’ll get to physically join his new team. But he is staying ready for that time.

“I have been working out,” Ebner said. “I have a private place I can go to and I can get my workouts in that coach has sent us, do my running and all that stuff. I’m good on that stuff… I’m trying to stay healthy, stay clean.

“You know the drill.”

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