EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The Giants' newest safety is a Jewish Olympic rugby player who never played high school football, was a college walk-on and seldom actually plays safety.
Yes, Nate Ebner is an interesting guy.
Ebner, 31, is a special teams dynamo who won three Super Bowls in his eight seasons with the New England Patriots. When he joined the Giants as a free agent last week, he reunited with Joe Judge, whose tenure as the Pats' special teams assistant coach and then coordinator coincided with Ebner's stay in New England.
"(Judge's presence) definitely was a strong point" in his decision to join the Giants, Ebner said. "Obviously, I have a great relationship with Joe that was built over nearly a decade. We've worked together extensively through special teams. Just being in a tough environment that you see people come and go quite often, to kind of have a face that you see on a regular basis for, like I said, nearly a decade, I'd be lying if I said it didn't create a good relationship with him. That definitely played a part. At the end of it all, I'm excited to get out there and come to a great organization and get to work."
Ebner played in 127 regular-season and postseason games for New England without ever starting one. According to Pro Football Reference, in the last three seasons he had one snap on both offense and defense and 819 on special teams. He totaled 98 special teams tackles in his eight seasons.
Ebner was a member of the Patriots teams that won Super Bowls XLIX, LI and LIII. Because he was injured, Ebner missed New England's loss to Philadelphia in Super Bowl LII. But his time with the Patriots taught him the value of teamwork, of getting contributions from everyone and following Bill Belichick's mantra, "do your job." He will bring those attributes to Judge's Giants.
"That's what great teams do, play for each other," Ebner said. "Whatever I'm asked to do, I'm going to do it to the best of my ability."
Ebner's story is so much more than football. He made his first athletic mark playing rugby in his native Ohio. Ebner was a standout on the junior national team and played in three Junior World Cups. He didn't play football until he made the team as a walk-on at Ohio State in 2009, the first of three seasons with the Buckeyes.
"I played football when I was in pee wee in like seventh, eighth grade," Ebner said. "I kind of wanted to play football my senior year in high school. I chose not to because of the Junior World Cup. It was kind of a perfect storm for me. I had just finished playing international rugby against some of the best players in the world. I played in club rugby at Ohio State and was getting very frustrated, I guess, but kept it light. Tough situation. Kind of wanted to play football, didn't do it in high school. Now you're at one of the meccas of college football in the United States at Ohio State. All you do is hear about these football players. I knew it was something I wanted to do. (I knew) there wasn't much of a career in the United States for me to be a professional rugby player. Knowing that and like I said, all of those other things, it kind of culminated into, 'I'm going to try walking onto the football team.' I talked to my dad about that and that's what I did."
Ebner played so well that he was eventually awarded a scholarship and was voted the team's best special teams player as a senior in 2011. The Patriots noticed and drafted him in the sixth round of the 2012 NFL Draft. He totaled 17 special teams tackles as a rookie and 19 in 2016, when he was named second-team all-pro as a special teamer.
Earlier that year, the Patriots granted him a leave of absence so he could participate in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Ebner is one of just seven players in NFL history to participate in the Olympics and also win a pro football championship. He was the first player to accomplish that feat in the same year, as the 2016 Patriots defeated Atlanta in Super Bowl LI.
"I'd definitely say it's special to be the only person to ever win a Super Bowl and participate in the Olympics in the same year," Ebner said. "That's very cool. But at the end of the day, to be able to be on that team that was fortunate enough to go to the Super Bowl and win it, a lot of that is out of my control. I do what I can for the team, but that takes not just the players but the coaches and staff. That takes so many other people, so I was extremely fortunate, lucky to even be in that situation after the Olympics. A lot of things had to fall in place."
View photos of safety/special teamer Nate Ebner.
So, what provides the greater adrenalin rush, the Super Bowl or the Olympics?
"I get that question a lot," Ebner said. "They're both the pinnacle of their sport. Obviously, the NFL (gets) huge viewership and is a big spectacle on one day, and it's pretty awesome to be a part of that. But the Olympics are weeks on end. You're on a different continent. You're doing an opening ceremony, you're representing the United States, they're speaking different languages around you, you're in the Olympic Village with 8,000 other athletes around you, you watch other events, you practice, you go do your event - it's just a long, drawn out thing, a completely different experience.
"But they're both extremely special in their own right. I wouldn't trade either one, no doubt. I was just very fortunate for all of that to happen for me because rugby hadn't been in the Olympics since 1924, something like that. A very long time ago. The United States is not a rugby nation, no one in the world thought we'd qualify, but the United States qualified. … To have qualified to be in the Olympics as a nation when there's only 16 teams in the tournament, and for me personally, to be in the prime of my athletic career, and not only that, having grown up, I could not have made that team if I didn't play rugby my entire life. The only reason I made it was because I had the upbringing that I had. For all those things to happen and culminate with me to be able to be a part of the Olympics and then win a Super Bowl the same year, I'm not really one to believe in fate or things of that nature, but that kind of makes me believe it."
Ebner's most significant role model was his father, Jeffrey a former college rugby player at the University of Minnesota, and Sunday School principal at Temple Shalom near the family's Ohio home. Jeffrey Ebner was murdered at age 53 during an attempted robbery in November 2008 at the family business, Ebner & Sons auto reclamation in Springfield.
"It's hard to put into words," Ebner said when asked to discuss their bond. "I could go on and on, but at the end of the day, my relationship with him is the foundation for who I am. That goes to character, that goes to work ethic, that goes to just everything - grit, determination, discipline, all of those things. It was a lifestyle that he lived by. Working hard and then going to work out or whatever it was, in the junkyard. I had a very blue-collar upbringing working in the junkyard. But like I said, he's the foundation for everything in my life. I wouldn't be where I am without that. No question. I'm a very determined person, but I think the guidance he gave me really early on in my life was extremely valuable and important to me.
"That really speaks, in my opinion, that a young man between 13 and 17, 18, they need a father figure in their lives. I look back and, obviously, I lost my dad in a really tragic way. But I was 19. I had those very important years where a father can kind of develop in a positive way and guide his son from a young man to a man. I was lucky to have that. There are kids out there across the world that don't have a father figure in a much more vulnerable time in their lives and they need it. I try to look at it as a blessing that I had him when I needed him the most. Toward the end, we became kind of best friends. That's what hurt the most, to lose someone who's given so much and was one of your best friends. I was so fortunate to have him at such a critical time of my life."
NFL players are often questioned about their faith. Ebner is one of the very few for whom that faith is Judaism.
"Being raised Jewish has always been a part of my life, from when I was extremely young," Ebner said. "It's kept my family extremely close. There's a different type of bond that you form when you're kind of different than everyone else in terms of your religion. But in a strengthening way. I've always loved that part about it. Not that it's different, but that it was our thing, being Jewish and being raised that way. I love the fact that I had my own thing with my family that we did, and that's all that really matters. I don't want it to sound like I'm the most religious person on the team. I can promise you that will not be the case. But my Jewish background is important to me, I would say that without a doubt. Being Jewish is something I'm proud of."
It's one of many facets of Ebner's life he can take pride in.