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Nate Ebner's Fatherland, Part One: Junkyard Doggedness

A young Nate Ebner (left) with his father, Jeff, and Magnum, their yellow Labrador Retriever.
A young Nate Ebner (left) with his father, Jeff, and Magnum, their yellow Labrador Retriever.

The trial ended sooner than it otherwise might have.

All involved seemed relieved to varying degrees, as both temperatures and emotions were soaring. With the mercury outside approaching a midday high of 90, the drama inside a Springfield, Ohio courtroom reached its climax on Thursday, July 22, 2010, the fourth and final day of proceedings.

A 43-year-old defendant familiar to law enforcement was already in jail a year earlier on a separate parole violation and burglary charge when authorities accused him in this particular instance of murder, assault, robbery, and tampering with evidence – nine counts in all – in connection with a brutal slaying. That crime occurred two years earlier, less than a half-mile away, literally down the road from and virtually within sight of the Clark County Courthouse where the case was being heard.

Initially, defense attorneys attempted to establish reasonable doubt by suggesting it could have taken more than one person to kill the victim, a rugged former rugby player 10 years their client’s senior, who earned his living crushing old cars. However, the accused’s unforeseen confession brought the trial to an abrupt halt.

Nearly a decade since, while the admitted perpetrator sits behind bars, Nate Ebner takes a seat inside the Patriots locker room. He’s in the midst of trying to rehabilitate a groin injury that prevented him from traveling to Washington for New England’s 33-7 win over the Redskins the previous day.

Yet, for the better part of an hour, the veteran special teamer shares intimate details and fond recollections not only of an eventful 2019 – his romantic wedding in Italy and poignant pilgrimage to Israel – but also of his loving father, Jeff.

As he speaks, Ebner fiddles at times, perhaps subconsciously, with a black rubber bracelet that’s adorned his right wrist for the past decade. On it are inscribed, in capital white letters, the words “FINISH STRONG.”

The type of FINISH STRONG bracelet that Nate Ebner has worn since 2009.
The type of FINISH STRONG bracelet that Nate Ebner has worn since 2009.

Before you finish hearing the story he is going to relate, Ebner makes one small request: that you not feel sorry for him. He makes abundantly clear that under no circumstances does he want your pity, well-placed though it may be. His intention in divulging his most private thoughts and feelings is not to solicit sympathy or unwarranted attention for himself or his family.

His hope? That you come away with a broader perspective.

“Life is short, could be shorter. Take advantage of every single opportunity and day and moment that you have. It’s real... I’ve experienced it first-hand. It sounds cliché to people who haven’t experienced that.

“I don’t need to air all my business to make me feel better,” he emphasizes. “I’ve never really been like that, but… If somebody wants a real message or they’ve maybe had that situation in their own life and they’re having trouble and they want to have a real conversation, I’m down for that all the time.”

That’s because Nate’s father, Jeff Ebner, was a man who devoted every weekend to spending quality time with his only child.

A man who believed his son should understand and appreciate his Jewish heritage, but never pressured him to practice it.

A man who encouraged Nate’s seemingly outrageous athletic dream, when most other people, had they heard it, might have laughed young Ebner out of the room.

A man – the very same man – whose life so violently ended 11 Novembers ago.

Jeff and Nate Ebner take in a Tampa Bay Buccaneers game.
Jeff and Nate Ebner take in a Tampa Bay Buccaneers game.

FAITH, FAMILY, AND FISTICUFFS

Among Hebrew speakers, “Shabbat shalom” is a commonly employed greeting, intended to wish someone a peaceful Sabbath – the 24-hour period between nightfall on Fridays to nightfall Saturdays.

Whenever his son came to visit, Jeff Ebner did his level best to provide Nate with serene Saturdays. As Nate got older, peace proved far more elusive most Sundays, which followed a familiar pattern.

First, Jeff and Nate got limber by stretching. Then they’d lace up their cleats and pop in their mouthpieces. Rather than going to a nearby athletic field, father and son instead hopped on their bikes and headed to 420 E. North Street, where the family’s auto reclamation business, Ebner Sons, has existed for as long as the NFL has been playing professional football. Nate affectionately calls it “the junkyard.”

There, the Ebners would participate in an extracurricular physical activity of an altogether different variety – a secret they kept pretty much between themselves. And the authorities.

“Man, we used to chase robbers. We used to beat the [$#!+] out of robbers,” Nate recalls wistfully, the slightest hint of a mischievous grin forming at the corners of his mouth.

A busy, four-lane road, Springfield’s E. North Street flows one-way toward the west of town. Several car dealerships occupy the real estate directly across the street. Any would-be criminals venturing onto the Ebner Sons property might therefore try their concealed escape through the back, by way of a wooded area and old train tracks that mimic the contours of Buck Creek. In all likelihood, the scoundrels wouldn’t have accounted for the proprietor and his strapping young boy ambushing them.

“Springfield’s a bad area, man,” Nate adds with emphasis. “People were always stealing. We knew where the holes in the fences were. We’d set [the robbers] up, basically, to run out. I’d chase them, he’d usually be waiting for them… We did it all the time. We’d chase them, we’d catch them, beat the crap out of them, and then we’d send them to the police. I couldn’t tell you how many times we did that.”

Whether or not she was aware at the time of their roughing-up of robbers, Nancy Pritchett didn’t mind at all that her son kept company with his father, her second ex-husband. She encouraged it, actually. Having split up when Nate was still an infant, Nancy and Jeff nevertheless remained on friendly terms. She had primary, weekday custody of their son in Mason, a community on the northern outskirts of Cincinnati, about an hour from Springfield. But Jeff and Nate saw each other two or three times a week, and many weekends as well.

“Jeff could see Nate anytime he wanted. Jeff was a great dad, a good person,” Nancy remembers. “He and I may not have made it, but that doesn’t mean Jeff wasn’t the person I chose to marry. He was a great guy. Jeff’s strengths were, if you’re going to do something, do it. Do it 100-percent, don’t do it halfway.”

Jeff’s philosophy seemed to apply to all areas of life, including the more sensitive, spiritual side.

Raised in a practicing Jewish family, Jeff felt it his responsibility to surround Nate with the same religious and cultural traditions. He also regaled his son with tales of his brief journey to Israel in 1989 as a competitor in the Maccabiah Games (a quadrennial event commonly known as the “Jewish Olympics”).

Nate’s mother, a Christian, wholeheartedly supported this exposure to multiple faiths.

“Jeff became a principal at the synagogue in Springfield that he took Nate to on the weekends,” she continues. “He knew that if he wanted Nate to understand the Jewish faith, he was going to have to participate in that. He became very involved in it. I had no problem with Nate being introduced to both religions and choosing whatever he felt he could relate to.”

While proud of his dual heritage, Nate admits, “I’m just not a super religious person.”

It didn’t take him and Jeff long to discover they could best relate to one another – worship one another – through sport.

Even as an infant, Nate Ebner displayed athletic talent. Here, his father, Jeff, introduces him to basketball in their driveway.
Even as an infant, Nate Ebner displayed athletic talent. Here, his father, Jeff, introduces him to basketball in their driveway.

DRIVEN BY DEVOTION

“Nate’s attitude, as a little boy and throughout his life, has always been, he just never felt there was something he couldn’t do… He was always very strong for a kid his age.”

As evidence, Nancy Pritchett recounts how her 2-year-old once carried a tricycle up two flights of stairs in their home. Immediately regretting her order to take the toy back downstairs, she watched in horror as Nate mounted the miniature bike and rode it down the staircase. He survived the inevitable crash unscathed.

Though not always the six-foot, 215-pound specimen he is today, Nate Ebner never lacked in physical gifts.

“From the time he was very young, we knew,” adds Nancy, “he was going to be coordinated and good at sports.”

Nate started walking at just nine months. In organized youth sports – soccer, baseball, football – he naturally excelled, and Jeff never missed a game. Such devotion came as no surprise to Ann Bailin, Jeff’s younger sister and an accomplished athlete herself (she swam competitively for the University of Indiana). Despite a 14-year age gap, the siblings were fond of one another from the outset.

“My mom told me when I was born, he was so excited. He wanted to hold me,” Ann explains, her wide smile discernible through her voice on the opposite end of a phone line. “When I got older and he could drive, he’d take me places. All the girls love a guy with a baby, and I always wanted to go.”

Later, a teenaged Ann would take her friends to watch her big brother play rugby matches, and when Ann got to college, Jeff made it a point to attend her swim meets on a regular basis. After college, Ann relocated to Tampa, Florida with their parents, but stayed in constant touch with Jeff.

“He and I were very close. I confided in him a lot. He was my best friend… I’d talk to him a couple of times a week. He’d always be in the car driving to see Nate. We’d call it ‘The Nate Show,’” she laughs at the memory of those long-distance calls.

By the time Nate reached eighth grade, Nancy, his mom, had re-married again and moved to Hilliard, a small city of suburban Columbus and still well within driving distance of Jeff. Nate could have easily continued playing football, but as the new kid in town, he chose instead to fortify the already covalent bond with his father by getting more involved in the sport Jeff loved most.

Jeff and Nate enjoying a day in the pool.
Jeff and Nate enjoying a day in the pool.

HOME TEAMS

Growing up in “The Land of 10,000 Lakes,” Jeff Ebner loved the water. Throughout his youth and early teens, he identified as a swimmer, according to his mother, Lyla Bailin. His senior year of high school in Robbinsdale, Minnesota, northwest of Minneapolis, he decided to try something new and went out for football.

Not only did he make the squad, Jeff played both offense and defense on a team that won their conference and advanced to the state championship that year. Drake University, four hours south on the highway in Des Moines, Iowa, offered him a football scholarship in 1973.

One day, a friend invited him to attend a rugby match and Jeff, frustrated by Drake Football’s frequent on-field failures, took a shine to it. Although he remained at Drake, he abandoned football (and his scholarship) to play on a local rugby club in Des Moines for the next two years.

Word of Jeff’s fire-hydrant frame and relentless hustle got back to his hometown, where the University of Minnesota rugby team offered him a spot on its roster. Jeff transferred from Drake, moved back home for his senior year, and helped his new Gopher teammates capture the Big Ten Conference Championship.

Upon graduation in 1977, Jeff was accepted to Minnesota’s law school, but didn’t end up attending. Instead, he continued to play rugby, first in Minneapolis while working a day job, then Dallas, Texas, where that job moved him, and later on two different clubs when he returned to Ohio to take over his biological father’s family business (Lyla and Jeff’s dad had divorced years earlier).

Jeff Ebner (with the ball) took quickly to rugby after first getting involved in the sport during college.
Jeff Ebner (with the ball) took quickly to rugby after first getting involved in the sport during college.

In 1989, Jeff competed against international opponents on the U.S. rugby squad that took home the bronze at the Maccabiah Games in Tel Aviv. The previous December, when Jeff became a father, he bequeathed to his son both a passion and a talent for rugby. Infant Nate first tossed a rugby ball to Jeff while still in his stroller. Later, he often joined Jeff on the field to take part in club practices.

Before long, as he catapulted in size throughout his teens, Nate established himself as one of the most gifted youth players in the United States. Between 2006 and ’08, he represented the Red, White, and Blue as a member of the Under-19 and Under-20 U.S. National Teams that competed overseas, including the 2008 Junior Rugby World Cup in Wales. Team USA failed to win a match in that tournament, but Nate still managed to earn MVP honors.

Nate represented the United States for the first time as a youth rugby player on Team USA's Under-19 and Under-20 teams.
Nate represented the United States for the first time as a youth rugby player on Team USA's Under-19 and Under-20 teams.

Not yet 20, Nate saw his options to continue playing professional rugby expand at that point, but he had considerable ambivalence toward any potential offers.

“My dream wasn’t really to go to France [for instance], learn French, then have to play rugby in France,” he confesses. “I wanted to be in the United States.”

Because as comfortable as he’d become on a rugby pitch, Nate felt even more at home at the junkyard.

Jeff worked there with his own father (Nate’s grandfather, Dick) and Nate spent much of his adolescent summers there. The Ebner sons would purchase broken down cars, strip them of anything valuable, then crush and stack them to sell off the remaining steel. Before he could legally drive, Nate operated the heavy machinery to do the job; in his down time, he’d tear around the yard on dirt bikes and four-wheelers. The outdoor equivalent of a man-cave, if you will.

At day’s end, Nate and Jeff often went to lift weights together. “Finish strong,” Jeff always encouraged his son.

Nate inevitably made friends his own age at Hilliard Davidson High, and, less than two miles away, at sister school Hilliard Darby, where an ambitious, athletic girl named Chelsey caught his eye. They had friends in common and sometimes spent time with one another in group settings.

Ironically, only much later and when a much greater distance separated them did they grow closer. Nate enrolled at nearby Ohio State in 2007 while Chelsey went off to Ohio University 80 miles away. As college seniors, the two officially started dating.

“The timing just kind of worked out,” Nate shrugs. “We liked each other and have been together ever since, pretty much.”

Just like his father before him, after one year in college, Nate started becoming restless, though not for other women. For years, he’d harbored a dream that, it seemed, the time had finally come to chase.

Wherever Nate Ebner played youth rugby, his father, Jeff, would surely follow.
Wherever Nate Ebner played youth rugby, his father, Jeff, would surely follow.

FINAL WORDS

By staying Stateside, Nate’s opportunities to play rugby rapidly dwindled as he approached the end of his teens. Between international appearances, he kept in shape by playing rugby on the club level at Ohio State.

“Super frustrated with that,” he acknowledges. “You’re playing against the best in the world to just, a bunch of kids that – no offense to them, but they just don’t have the same experience. It was hard for me. I took what I did pretty seriously. I’d played on three Junior World Cup teams. They wanted to [%^&*] around and then drink after the game. I just never got down like that.

“But I still had at least three more years of school. That’s when I started thinking about football. I always wanted to be a pro football player.”

Nate Ebner played club rugby at Ohio State from 2007-08.
Nate Ebner played club rugby at Ohio State from 2007-08.

On Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2008, Nate and Jeff met, as they so often did, over dinner. Jeff listened intently as Nate spelled out his desire to try to play football for Ohio State, one of the most storied collegiate programs in the country. Jeff, of course, followed the Buckeyes, as most Ohioans do, but considered himself “a rugby guy” at his core.

“‘I’m all for Ohio State,’” Nate remembers Jeff responding, “‘but I hope you’re not being persuaded by going to school there and just want to be on the football team and wear the jersey.’ We had to clarify that.”

The two agreed that Nate would put his rugby career in abeyance, not give it up entirely. If the football fantasy didn’t materialize and Nate stayed healthy, he could always resurrect it. In the interim, Jeff’s consent came with one non-negotiable caveat.

“‘We’re not going to half-[@$$] it,’” Jeff decreed, true to his nature. “‘Let’s give football a real shot… try to get to the NFL.’

“Once I had his support, I didn’t really care what anybody else thought.”

Buoyed by his father’s blessing and the approaching holiday season, Nate returned to campus with every reason to be in high spirits.

Jeff must have as well. Happily remarried to a woman named Amy, he was scheduled that coming weekend to visit his family in Florida. His sister, who’d purchased tickets for them to attend a Tampa Bay Buccaneers game, recalls, “I [went online and] checked him into his flight, said we’d have a drink before we go to see mom and dad. It was going to be a fun weekend.”

Ann Bailin believes she was the last person to speak to her brother. For at some point after their phone conversation on Thursday, Nov. 13, Jeff Ebner confronted an intruder at the junkyard. An anonymously-placed 911 call led police to Ebner Sons, where they discovered Jeff in his office, supine and severely beaten about the head.

Authorities eventually arrived at the astonishing conclusion – and were prepared to present evidence at trial had it gone further – that their prime suspect not only committed the heinous crime, but also notified them of it.

Dan Driscoll, Assistant Clark County Prosecutor at the time, would later remark to reporters, “I don’t know if it’s… a criminal with a conscience or some type of psychopath here.”

Coming this Tuesday, Nov. 12 – Nate Ebner’s Fatherland, Part Two: Triumph over Tragedy, and on Tuesday, Nov. 19, Part Three: Peace at Last

Jeff Ebner shares a tender moment with his infant son, Nate.
Jeff Ebner shares a tender moment with his infant son, Nate.

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