New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick isn’t the type of guy who lets healthy players skip training camp, but he is making an exception for safety Nate Ebner because he had an unusual excuse.
Ebner is a member of the U.S. Olympic men’s rugby sevens team, which opens play Tuesday against Argentina and Brazil. Ebner, who has played special teams for the Patriots the past four seasons, was a rugby player long before he walked onto the Ohio State football team as a junior. Also, his late father, Jeff, who was beaten to death in an attempted robbery in 2008, was a rugby player, and the two were very close.
So, when U.S. coach Mike Friday named Ebner to the Olympic team, it was an opportunity he did not want to miss. He requested a leave of absence from the Patriots, and Belichick obliged.
“It’s a great opportunity for him to follow his passion, participate in the Olympic Games,” Belichick told reporters. “We’re pulling for him to bring back something around his neck.”
Ebner is not the only U.S. rugby player with a football background.
Perry “Speed Stick” Baker of Daytona Beach played wide receiver at Division II Fairmont State, where he once scored five touchdowns in a game against Shepherd. His athleticism caught the attention of the Philadelphia Eagles, who invited him to camp. He tore his meniscus in his right knee, underwent surgery and wound up playing arena football. But he says he didn’t like it.
He had dabbled in rugby since college, after the wide receivers coach introduced him to the sport. Knowing the sport was being brought back to the Olympics after a 92-year absence, Baker decided to drop football and concentrate on rugby.
He joined the Daytona Beach Coconuts, traveled to San Diego to train and has become one of the top American players. He raised eyebrows with his exceptional play against New Zealand in the London Sevens in May.
“I fell in love with the game during college but still wanted to pursue my NFL dream that I had since I was a kid,” said Baker, 30, whose brother is former University of Florida and Pittsburgh Steelers player Dallas Baker. “After my knee injury, I decided football is not for me anymore, and I got really into rugby.
“I like that we don’t wear pads because I always felt restricted by hip and thigh pads. With rugby, it’s like, ‘Hey, I’m free!’ ”
He also likes that rugby tackling relies more on wrapping up, which is safer than American football tackling.
Baker hopes the inclusion of rugby in the Olympics will help expose the sport to young men who had never considered it as an option.
“I want kids to see there are other team sports to get into besides basketball or football,” Baker said. “Rugby is for everyone.”
He believes the women’s Olympic teams will also inspire a whole new generation of young players.
One of the most exciting players on Team USA is Carlin Isles, a former sprinter and football player who discovered the sport on YouTube four years ago and has been dubbed “The Fastest Man in Rugby.” Isles has run the 100 meters in 10.15 seconds, which is very fast, but not fast enough to make the U.S. Olympics team, which was his lifelong dream.
He played football at Ashland University and got invited to a Detroit Lions camp, but that never went anywhere.
So, in 2012, he was sitting at home in Austin, Texas, trying to figure out what to do next. He saw some videos of rugby and thought it would be a perfect fit.
He wrote an email to a U.S. rugby official, introducing himself. Before long, he had packed up all his belongings, loaded them into his car and drove to Colorado to learn his new sport.
“I thought, ‘This is pretty sweet. Rugby’s for me,’ ’’ Isles said.
Rugby sevens is a fast-paced, hard-hitting sport that Olympians hope will appeal to American audiences. Games take less than a half hour to complete.
The United States is a long shot for a medal because it lacks the tradition and experience of teams such as Fiji, New Zealand and South Africa. Nevertheless, Team USA has speed, football experience and Ebner, who is a Super Bowl champion.
“Rugby is one of the fastest growing sports in the U.S., and I think it will get even bigger based on how we play at the Olympics,” Baker said. “If we could somehow stand on the podium, I bet you’d see lots of former football players making the switch. Sky’s the limit.”