RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Nate Ebner is the only Super Bowl champion who ever played a game of rugby in the Olympics.
The New England Patriots safety and special teams ace scored a try before his late tackle led to a yellow card in the Americans’ 26-0 blowout of Brazil on Tuesday in the rugby sevens tournament.
Back home, Bill Belichick stopped practice so his players could watch their teammate compete a world away at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
They saw No. 12 — no, not in honor of Tom Brady — score just as the first half ended and then get yellow-carded in the second half for laying out Brazilian reserve Gustavo Albuquerque on a hit that would have drawn praise in Foxborough but earned him jeers and a two-minute penalty at Deodoro Stadium.
It wasn’t a football flashback, he insisted.
“Not really,” Ebner said. “You just let your natural instincts take over.”
And those instincts were honed on the pitch, not the gridiron.
Ebner won a Super Bowl ring with the Patriots two years ago, but rugby is in his blood. His father, Jeff Ebner, played at the University of Minnesota and taught his son the game when he was a toddler.
Jeff Ebner was killed in a robbery in 2008 at the family salvage business, the last father-son conversation over Nate’s desire to walk on the football team at Ohio State.
Ebner said he thinks of his father all the time but he didn’t venture a guess as to what his father would think of his boy making it to the Olympics.
“I don’t know,” he said. “That’s a long thought.”
And right now he’s focused on Fiji, whom the Americans play Wednesday in a make-or-break game.
Ebner signed a two-year, $2.4 million extension with the Patriots this spring just before taking a leave of absence to pursue his Olympic dream.
“It’s great for him to actually tick off two big bucket list items,” said Dan Panye, CEO of USA Rugby.
A Super Bowl and an Olympics.
“He’s probably the only person in the history of man that’s able to say that,” Payne said.
Ebner will return to the Patriots when his Olympic adventure is over.
“It’s been a great experience. To be a part of something this big and this prestigious, it’s really an honor,” Ebner said. “And it’s an honor to be here with this group of guys that works so hard.”
He’s hoping to be an example.
“I hope it changes the game,” Ebner said of rugby’s return to the Olympics for the first time since 1924. “We can kind of be trailblazers for something great in the United States and obviously that’s our hopes and dreams for this sport. I love this sport.”
While football games are 60 minutes of action interrupted by whistles and commercials, rugby sevens consists of two seven-minute halves and a two-minute halftime. With extra time, it’s over in 20 minutes, tops.
But it’s played on the same field that regular rugby uses, with 14 players instead of 30. So, it’s a fast-moving, insane shock to the system, drenching players in adrenalin and sweat.
“They’re very different,” Ebner said of his two sports. “Football’s a violent game played right at one another. They’re very different games. But as you can see at times out here it can get very violent as well.”
His cardio and aerobic capacities are off the charts — he doesn’t dare step on a scale — but he figures he’ll fit right back in at the Patriots’ training camp because playing Argentina and Brazil has helped prepare him to face the likes of the Jets and the Bills.
“I definitely think so,” Ebner said. “I’m going to have to gain some more weight, too, because we don’t run as much out there. But it should help. No one runs like this and tackles like this (in the NFL). It’s unreal.”
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