Nate Ebner Listens To His Heart In Switching Between Rugby And Football

by Bob Reinert

Nate Ebner runs with the ball at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 on Aug. 10, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.


When Nate Ebner discusses dividing his time between the two sports in his life, he talks about the importance of “details” and “energy systems.”

Ebner, 32, who won three Super Bowls with the New England Patriots and went to the Olympic Games Rio 2016 with the U.S. men’s rugby sevens team, knows that playing two sports at such a high level can be a balancing act.
“They’re very different to me,” Ebner said. “My approach as a professional is that I need to, in both sports, pay attention to those details so that I can be as good as I can be.
“Physically, they’re very different approaches. The energy systems you use to play in a rugby game are just to play with your heart rate over 160, 170 for long durations of time. That’s very difficult. That’s a different energy system than (in football, where you have) just maximum effort for six seconds and getting plenty of rest.”
In 2016 Ebner became the first athlete to win the Super Bowl and appear in an Olympic Games in the same year. 
“When I got back from the Olympics in 2016, I went right into playing football,” Ebner said. “I think I was All-Pro that year, so that transitioned pretty well for me.”
Rugby was his early focus in life. At age 17, Ebner became the youngest player ever for the USA Men’s Eagles Sevens. He passed up football to avoid injury and missed the chance to play for his high school team, which won the Division I Ohio state championship.
Concentrating on rugby paid dividends, however, as he was named the U.S. team MVP at two straight junior world championships. Finally, as a college junior, he walked onto the powerhouse football team at Ohio State University.
“Through all my decisions in my sports career in my life, I’ve kind of listened to my heart,” Ebner said. “And that was kind of the first time that it really pulled me in a different direction, and I had to be honest with myself.
“I (was) starting to think about my future. There’s not really professional rugby in the United States at that time.”
It was a good decision for Ebner, who went on to play six years with the Patriots. In March 2020 he signed a free agent contract with the New York Giants. His successful NFL career has left him uniquely qualified to compare football and rugby.
“The mental approach … that’s where football is like a chess match,” Ebner said. “There’s just so much detail into not only your own game plans, but the game plan of the opponent. There’s a lot of preparation that’s done sitting in front of a screen and watching film and having conversations.”
Ebner said he finds rugby to be a more of a “free-flowing sport” — like basketball.
“You have these options that you play to as you assess what the defense gives you, and rugby is very, very similar in that regard,” Ebner said. “It’s this constantly changing, constantly flowing game where you have to keep evaluating what’s going on around you and make decisions as you go.”
As Ebner pointed out, football calls for short bursts at maximum speed, while rugby demands more sustained cardiovascular efforts.
“People would think there’s conditioning in football,” Ebner said. “They haven’t experienced anything like rugby, then, if they think you have to be fit for football.
“When I think about football, it’s more weightlifting, it’s more explosive work. When I think of rugby, it’s more cardio, it’s less weightlifting. It’s, like I said, a different energy system.”
Ebner said he found it harder to go from the NFL to Olympic rugby than vice versa.
“I hadn’t played (rugby) in a while, and I hadn’t played at an Olympic level yet,” Ebner said. “I just had to go through it. That was a grueling process, to say the least, and something I grew from, that challenged me.”
Ebner plans to apply what he learned in 2016 as he attempts to make the U.S. team for the upcoming Games in Tokyo.
“If everything went well, I’d stay healthy, I’d make the Olympic team and I’d go help the U.S. medal in rugby,” Ebner said. “That would be obviously what I’m striving for. With that, (I’d) come out of it healthy and go play a great football season with the New York Giants and do something special with that team.”

Bob Reinert spent 17 years writing sports for The Boston Globe. He also served as a sports information director at Saint Anselm College and Phillips Exeter Academy. He is a contributor to on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.