It’s a Hollywood cliché – the star player being coerced to rejoin the team just in time for the biggest tournament when the squad needs him most.
Well, Ohio State football player Nate Ebner probably doesn’t see himself as Jimmy Chitwood, but there’s no doubting he’s a welcome addition to the Buckeye club rugby team this weekend.
Ebner, a former member of USA Rugby junior national teams, is suiting up for Ohio State as it takes on 15 other college squads as part of the USA Sevens Collegiate Championship Individual at Columbus Crew Stadium.
“I’ve had a lot of people asking me to come out and play in this,” said Ebner, who walked on to the football team a season ago. “It’s a good opportunity. I’m coming just for this tournament. It’s a special thing. I’m glad I can get away from football and take part in this. It’s just a good opportunity for rugby. It’s awesome to be a part of it, really.”
This inaugural version of the event is being broadcast on NBC this weekend from 4:30 to 6 p.m. each day. The Buckeyes are in a group with Utah, Bowling Green and Penn State, with the matchup against the Nittany Lions slated to be part of a national television broadcast.
Fans can expect to see a fast-paced version of rugby, as halves are only seven minutes long and teams play seven per side rather than the 15 used in traditional rugby union matches. The growing sport, which is similar to football in many ways, highlights individual play and will be part of the Olympic Games starting in 2016.
“I like playing sevens,” Ebner said. “I’ve played in a couple of national camps, and it’s a fun game. It’s open, spread out. It’s more for the athletes. There’s one-on-one defense. It’s exciting to watch.”
Ebner grew up playing rugby, becoming so good that he qualified to play on the national Under-19 and U-20 teams. He was so good that he played rugby in 2006 instead of suiting up for football during his senior year of high school at Hilliard Davidson, a season in which the Wildcats won the Ohio Division I title behind the strong running of current OSU back Bo DeLande.
“They took me all over the world for a couple of years,” he said. “It was some high-level competition that you don’t really get to see in the United States.”
He even played some for the Buckeye club team upon arriving at Ohio State but decided that the rugby schedule of international tournaments was too difficult to complete while advancing toward his degree. He also dealt with family tragedy when his father, Jeff, was murdered in November 2008.
With that, rugby went out the window, but a new goal materialized – making the Ohio State football team. The same natural athletic gifts and hard work in training that made the 6-0, 200-pounder such a good rugby player suited him well on the football field, and he made it through walk-on tryouts in 2009.
“I just wanted to play,” he said of turning to football. “I was getting asked a bit to leave the country (for rugby) and that wasn’t really an option to me because I wanted to finish school, so I thought, growing up in Columbus, Ohio, there’s nothing better than the Ohio State Buckeyes football team. I thought, ‘Why not try out?’ So I did.”
But unlike many walk-ons, who either wait patiently for playing time or never even make it to the field, Ebner immediately was part of the team’s plans. A safety by trade, he played in 12 of 13 games on special teams, making seven tackles as part of the kickoff coverage unit.
“I was a little surprised (I played so much), but after competing with some of the guys and proving myself, I don’t think it was given to me or anything,” he said. “It was an honor for sure. Hard work pays off, really.”
Ebner continued to work at safety throughout the spring in the hopes that he can turn into more than just a special teams warrior.
“If they need ever need me to step in at safety I’ll be ready and willing to do that,” he said. “Really though, I want to make a mark on special teams and be one of our stronger players going down there and making plays. But right now I have to get this done.”
He was referring to returning to rugby, and he jumped into preparation with that squad right around the time spring practice came to an end. The football team continues to work out, taxing Ebner physically at times, but he’s just happy to be back playing one of his favorite pastimes.
“It’s an awesome game,” he said. “It’s definitely a players’ game. I love it. I love scoring, I love making the long plays where the whole team is involved. It’s such a fluid game. There’s nothing really like it.”