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Patriots Unfiltered Tue Dec 10 | 11:55 AM - 02:00 PM

Nate Ebner's Fatherland, Part Two: Triumph over Tragedy

Nate Ebner (43) and Tom Brady lead the New England Patriots onto the field for Super Bowl XLIX.
Nate Ebner (43) and Tom Brady lead the New England Patriots onto the field for Super Bowl XLIX.

Via Interstate 70, the westbound drive from Columbus to Dayton can take upwards of 90 minutes; Nate Ebner made it in barely 60 after one of his aunts called to report, somewhat vaguely, that his father had been in “an accident.” Nate’s mind raced even faster than his car’s engine as he contemplated what foolhardy thing his dad might have done.

“I was thinking about a car accident [because] he was the [worst] driver of all time,” Nate grins softly. “He used to put his headphones over his head and put a portable DVD player on the dashboard and drive on the highway… that’s just the type of character he was.”

As a boy, Nate Ebner spent plenty of quality time with his dad, Jeff.
As a boy, Nate Ebner spent plenty of quality time with his dad, Jeff.

Only when Nate finally arrived at his father’s bedside and beheld his gruesome condition did doctors and family begin to reveal that the accident was in fact an attack. Mere hours since it occurred, police had little to go on, other than it appeared Jeff Ebner – a solid man of 5-9, 190 pounds – was the victim of an attempted robbery gone horribly wrong.

Nate’s thoughts immediately flashed back to the countless times he and his father had tag-teamed would-be burglars at the family’s junkyard.

“Being younger, you think, ‘What if somebody brought a gun or something? What if he meets his match one day? Maybe somebody came back, or maybe…’” his voice trails off.

“But at the end of the day, they were there to steal, they tried to run, and we caught them. That’s what it was. They weren’t there to pick a fight. I doubt it, because he’s just ready. We fight people. That’s what we did. I was never really worried about him in that regard.”

Nate stoically recites the litany of medical issues his father faced.

“Induced coma, skull cracks, antenna thing coming out of his head – which probably was monitoring swelling – broken arm in a cast, eyes swollen to the point where he’s unrecognizable… it became very real to me in that moment.”

In retrospect, Nate concedes that a part of him already accepted that his father was gone, yet he clung to the thread of hope that doctors extended.

“They’re just all very positive. So, in my mind,” he reasons, “I didn’t know he was going to die. I drive back to Columbus to get all my school stuff. I was going to bring all that back and just chill with him at the hospital.”

Exhausted both physically and emotionally, Nate collapsed in his bed. He awoke Friday morning to his phone a boiling kettle of text messages and missed call alerts. Overnight, the swelling on Jeff’s brain had become uncontrollable.

Nate dashed back to Miami Valley Hospital just in time to watch his father draw his final breaths.

A FUNNY LITTLE KID, THIS GRIM REAPER

“He was a funny little kid.”

Nancy Pritchett chuckles at her recollection of the little boy whose smile could illuminate any room.

“Nate was also, as a child and still to this day, very focused, very serious – serious in a way that he thought about things before he did them. He was not an impulsive type,” she adds. “He’d be watching TV and his forehead was scrunched up and he’d be thinking through everything.

“Very responsible, very organized person. Everything he chose to do or was assigned to do in school he did 100-percent. He would tell you, ‘If you’re going to do something, do it 100-percent, or else why do it.’”

Very much his father’s son in disposition, an adult Nate has become Jeff’s corporeal carbon copy.

“Obviously, Nate’s his own person, but the resemblance, it’s just so uncanny,” his aunt and Jeff’s sister, Ann Bailin, agrees. “The way he walks or stands, or his hands, especially his smile. Sometimes I do a double-take.”  

Yet on Friday, Nov. 14, 2008, just moments after doctors pronounced Jeff Ebner dead, Nate was reduced to a shadow of himself. Nancy says that day and the subsequent couple of months represent the worst period of her life. She’d just lost a friend and former husband, father to one of her children, and that child was suddenly inconsolable.

“He called me and he was just broken. Just crying… A light had gone out in him. I think it took some of his levity away. Losing his father made him question a lot of things.”

Jeff and a young Nate Ebner pose for a formal photo.
Jeff and a young Nate Ebner pose for a formal photo.

In the immediate aftermath, Nate’s family didn’t want him to drive back to Columbus. So, they booked a nearby hotel room, where he could do nothing but stew until his mother, who’d been in Florida at the time, returned with Nate’s stepfather.

“I remember thinking, ‘What the [%^&*] am I doing here? He’s gone. I’m sitting in this random hotel, for what?’ I just wanted to leave so bad.”

When Nancy and husband Doug came to pick Nate up, he remembers, “They didn’t even have words to say to me. They both saw me and broke down. There’s nothing to say.”

Nate found enough strength and a few words to eulogize Jeff at the funeral. He briefly resumed classes at Ohio State, but concentrating on schoolwork – or much else, for that matter – proved nearly impossible.

During an anthropology class, the discussion turned to early humans’ fight for survival, and one of our unearthed ancestors in particular who’d been bludgeoned to death. The parallel was too precise, too acute.

For the remainder of 2008, Nate dropped out of Ohio State and into a dark, lonely place, where two thoughts consumed his waking moments: his father, and the revenge he hoped to exact.

“It was a mess for me,” Nate freely admits. “Early on, I was pretty upset, and I wanted to go back to the junkyard. I wanted to chase robbers. And I almost went a couple of times. I could go beat the [$#!+] out of 10 people at the junkyard. It’s probably not going to be the same guy [who killed my father], and it doesn’t matter if it was the same guy.”

For a while, his family allowed him to grieve in his own way. He’d skulk around with his head down, a hoodie hiding most of his head, to shield from others the tears into which he’d spontaneously break down. Nate’s only temporary balm came from playing video games – often those involving violence.

Still distraught herself, Nancy understood she couldn’t allow Nate’s self-destructive behavior to persist, but had no idea how to reverse it.

“All I could think about,” she explains, “was what happened to [Jeff], but what was happening to my son was even more heartbreaking. That’s where I had to put my focus – helping him. He turned into this grim reaper. I was crying for him as much as anything else. It was tearing his life apart.

“I took him to Florida for Thanksgiving, but I needed to say something to make him start living again.”

As the calendar flipped from November and crept toward January, Nancy, at her wits’ end, watched Nate turn 20 on December 14, exactly one month after Jeff died.

“If your dad were here, this is not what he would want for you,” she finally pleaded with him. “This would break his heart, to see you do this with your life. He’s not here, but you have a life ahead of you and you need to make the most of it – if not for yourself, for all he brought to you. Do it to make him proud, even if he’s not here to see it, because you know that’s what he would have wanted.”

Somehow, these truths – the few words Nancy could conjure – snapped Nate out of his trance, as though he’d emerged from hypnosis and immediately remembered the OSU-to-NFL objective he and Jeff had agreed to undertake. Nate immediately began his workout regimen on his birthday.

“I needed to re-center myself,” he acknowledges. “When my mom got me in the right frame of mind, I didn’t see anything but that. Every day was focused on making that dream reality. I was on a mission… to do right by him.”

Jeff Ebner congratulates Nate following a youth rugby match.
Jeff Ebner congratulates Nate following a youth rugby match.

FINISHING STRONG

Two months to the day Jeff died, Mother Nature blanketed Columbus with half a foot of fresh snow, delaying by a week the tryout Nate was scheduled to have with Jim Tressel’s Ohio State football program that January 14, 2009. He took full advantage of the windfall seven days to prepare.

Weeks earlier, with financial support from Nate’s aunt and grandmother in Florida, Nancy arranged for her son to train with a strength coach, speed coach, and nutritionist, including Ohio-based former U.S. Olympic sprinter and medalist Harry “Butch” Reynolds. By the time Nate set foot on campus again, he was in the right frame of mind and peak physical condition to tackle any challenge on or off the field.

After Nate’s workout, Coach Tressel recognized that he had to have such a rare athlete on his team, even if he didn’t initially know exactly where to put this raw talent with much to learn. Nate now had something better than video games on which to focus his determined mind.

“Once I made the team, it gave me something to work for every day. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was probably the best thing for me, going through all that.

“My first year, I didn’t know anybody. I was on a mission,” Nate reflects, “but that wasn’t something I really talked to people about, because I was a walk-on that didn’t play football in high school. So, no one would really believe that. I’d get laughed out of the room. I really didn’t care to talk about it. I would outwork everybody and didn’t have anything to say about it.

“It was so hard playing football at Ohio State, not knowing anything about football, and then trying to stay in these workouts that I’ve never done before – and not just make it through them, but also shine in these workouts. It really took a lot from me.”

It gave Nate a lot, as well, including a needed respite from his round-the-clock obsession with not having Jeff around.

“Also having a brotherhood, those [teammates],” he adds. “I was friends with the [Ohio State] rugby guys, but… not like that. I think the professionalism of the football team kind of was what I needed.”

Ohio State’s 2009 season started off awkwardly. After squeaking by Navy at The Horseshoe (OSU’s home field), the Buckeyes, ranked No. 8 in the nation, dropped an 18-15 decision in Columbus to third-ranked Southern Cal. Four straight blowout wins would follow before Ohio State paid a visit to unranked Big 10 Conference rival Purdue. The Buckeyes departed having lost not only the game, 26-18, but also any realistic hopes of winning the national title that season.

Nate Ebner celebrates a play versus Akron in 2011 during his final season at Ohio State.
Nate Ebner celebrates a play versus Akron in 2011 during his final season at Ohio State.

Desperate to rally his troops, Coach Tressel met with each individual and asked for ideas on how to turn their fortunes around. When Nate mentioned this to his family, one of them suggested he tell the story of the FINISH STRONG bracelets and his father’s death. A reluctant Nate ultimately agreed to bring the idea back to Tressel, who gave Nate the go-ahead to speak to the team.

But first, Nate placed a call to his Aunt Ann in Florida. She’d recently happened upon those black rubber bracelets, bought a few, and sent one to Nate. Now, he was asking for 300 to distribute to the entire OSU program. She returned to the store in which she found them and placed the order. They arrived in Columbus in time for Nate’s speech.

His only edict: Don’t take one unless this is something you believe in. Every Buckeye did. Ohio State, which had tumbled to No. 18 in the nation following the Purdue defeat, steadily clawed its way back up the poll with five consecutive convincing victories. New Year’s Day 2010 saw Nate and his then-eighth-ranked-again teammates make it six straight in the season finale by toppling No. 7 Oregon at the Rose Bowl.

“That pushed me out of my comfort zone,” Nate says of his speech. “I didn’t want to do it. I felt it would be a good message, though. That probably helped me grow.”

On the field, he’d found his niche playing special teams. As a senior in 2011, Nate earned a football scholarship and the admiration of his teammates, who voted him that year’s winner of the Bo-Rein, the Buckeyes’ most inspirational player award.

Overlooked for an invitation to the February 2012 NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, Nate nevertheless retained the steadfast backing of his family, both in Ohio and Florida. Ohio State’s former strength coach, Eric Lichter, also offered to collaborate with Nate as he trained for workouts with pro scouts and potential NFL tryouts.

“Who the hell knew he’d get drafted?!” Ann Bailin explodes in laughter almost eight years later. “It was kind of like, ‘What just happened?’”

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and Nate Ebner celebrate victory in Super Bowl LI.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and Nate Ebner celebrate victory in Super Bowl LI.

PATRIOT-ISM

It’s not out of character for Bill Belichick to select players who are unfamiliar even to the most dedicated of football followers. In fact, many seasoned pundits were left scrambling for biographical and statistical information when New England used a sixth-round pick to choose a relatively obscure special teams contributor from Ohio State in the 2012 NFL Draft.

Although he saw action at times on defense as a rookie, Nate Ebner made New England’s 53-man roster largely on the strength of his abilities in the kicking game. He recorded 17 special teams tackles in 2012 and 11 in each of the next three seasons, including the 2014 campaign in which he helped the Patriots win their fourth Super Bowl title.

Nate had defied all manner of odds by making it to the National Football League and winning a championship. The dream that he and his father imagined had been realized, and then some. In Foxborough, Nate achieved success and a measure of job security.

And yet, he still loved rugby.

Nate Ebner runs to daylight on a fake punt versus the Miami Dolphins in 2017. His season ended, though, when he injured his knee at the end of this play.
Nate Ebner runs to daylight on a fake punt versus the Miami Dolphins in 2017. His season ended, though, when he injured his knee at the end of this play.

When his original rookie contract expired following the 2015 season, the Patriots re-signed Nate almost as soon as the free-agent signing period began in March 2016. The two-year pact he inked, though, came with the understanding that he be allowed to take an immediate, temporary leave of absence from the club. He would not take part in spring practices or the early portions of training camp and the preseason, as he spent time in California before embarking on a worldwide tour – Hong Kong, Singapore, London, Paris, Rio de Janeiro.

In a clear demonstration of respect for his player, Belichick consented to this in order to let Nate train with USA Rugby and compete in the Olympic Games in Brazil that summer. Further shows of support came when the Patriots gathered as a team during training camp to watch Nate’s televised matches, while coaches that day wore customized t-shirts at camp practice bearing the Ebner name along with his Olympic jersey number 12.

Patriots coaches wore these bespoke t-shirts during 2016 training camp to support Olympian Nate Ebner.
Patriots coaches wore these bespoke t-shirts during 2016 training camp to support Olympian Nate Ebner.

Since rugby numbers are assigned based on position, Nate’s 12 represented the inside center position he played. It also happened to be Jeff’s jersey number when he competed.

Though the Americans did not qualify for the medal round in Rio and played just five games in those Olympics, Nate registered his first “tries” (what touchdown-like scores are called in rugby) in international competition, once during a preliminary match in Singapore before twice scoring in Brazil.

“That was cool, too,” Nate told reporters upon his return to Gillette Stadium that August, “because it was on the world circuit and I hadn’t done that before, but just knowing it was in the Olympics added a little something special.”

Nate Ebner eludes a would-be tackler during a 2016 Olympic rugby match in Rio de Janeiro.
Nate Ebner eludes a would-be tackler during a 2016 Olympic rugby match in Rio de Janeiro.

In the hundred-year history of pro football, only seven men have ever taken part in the Olympic Games and won a gridiron championship. Among them, legendary Jim Thorpe and speedster Robert “Bullet Bob” Hayes. When Nate Ebner added his name to that elite list in 2016, he made sports history by becoming the first person to accomplish both feats in the same year.

Despite suffering a season-ending knee injury in November 2017, Nate had done enough in Belichick’s eyes to warrant re-signing to another two-year contract in March of 2018.

Representing his country in the Olympics as part of the Parade of Nations during the Opening Ceremonies was, he recalled, “pretty awesome,” a feeling Nate described as akin to running out of the tunnel before the Super Bowl, which he did for a third time as a Patriot in 2018.

“Unlike anything I’ll ever experience again, probably,” he added at the time.

That, of course, happened long before this past offseason. In June, Nate made yet another of Jeff’s dreams come true as he journeyed for the first time to the land his late father had forever rhapsodized.

Coming Tuesday, Nov. 19, the third and final installment – Nate Ebner’s Fatherland, Part Three: Peace at Last. Catch up by reading Part One: Junkyard Doggedness.

Nate Ebner (center, waving) and other U.S. Olympians during Opening Ceremonies of the Rio Summer Games.
Nate Ebner (center, waving) and other U.S. Olympians during Opening Ceremonies of the Rio Summer Games.

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