Nate Ebner has had a pretty incredible career so far. The 27-year-old was drafted into the National Football League (NFL) in 2012, joining the New England Patriots and going on to help his team win the Super Bowl in 2015.
But the American footballing superstar is soon taking a leave of absence from the Patriots to pursue his other dream—playing rugby at the Olympics.
Ebner has been playing rugby since he was a child, was later in the US under-19 and under-20 squads, and was an all-round rugby player throughout college. Though he showed exceptional skills at the game, the sport didn’t come with enough of a profile in the US. So Ebner made the switch from rugby to football. That didn’t turn out too badly.
But Ebner didn’t really forsake rugby and Rio next month could be his only chance to play. The International Olympic Committee is bringing back a version of rugby—known as sevens—to the summer games for the first time since 1924.
Once Ebner heard, he did everything he could to make sure he was taking part.
Ebner is the only active NFL player to ever qualify for the Olympics so far. Jarryd Hayne, the former rugby-league star and current San Francisco 49ers player, failed to make the Fiji rugby team.
But why would a Super Bowl winner spend his off-season playing rugby? Ebner says his passion for rugby can be traced back to his dad, Jeff Ebner, who played rugby at the University of Minnesota and who taught him the game. His father was killed during a robbery attempt—it’s his memory that is driving Ebner’s Olympic rugby quest.
The similarities between football and rugby may end with the egg-shaped ball, but both sports are eyeing world domination—with rugby targeting growth in the US and football trying to expand in the UK and Europe.
While Ebner made his transition from rugby to football look seamless, he’s actually one of the few to successfully do it. Football is similar to rugby, but there are important differences—from scoring, passing, and the lack of helmet and pads with the latter—that make it particularly difficult to play both sports at a high level.