Super Bowl winner Nate Ebner has a stake in the New England Free Jacks

Regularly praised by exalted American Football coach Bill Belichick for his ability to toil through the tough stuff, veteran New England Patriots safety Patrick Chung may not strike you as easy to grind down. But after years of subliminal rugby messaging from Nate Ebner, the other oval-ball game finally won him over.

This year it was announced that long-time Patriots team-mates Chung and Ebner became minority stakeholders at the New England Free Jacks, who play in Major League Rugby. Many will know that Ebner – who has three Super Bowl rings and recently joined the New York Giants – is a rugby man, and switched back to his first sporting love in 2016 to represent the USA in the Olympic Games. But how did he rope Chung into investing in his sport?

“With me going to the Olympics in 2016, he watched that,” Ebner says of Chung, who had been his ‘locker mate’ for the best part of a decade. “Along with me coming back and broadcasting during the Sevens World Cup in San Francisco, and then just all the rugby I watched every year, whether it be the sevens circuit or the Rugby World Cup last year, he had been right next to me.

“He was always interested. After Rio he was even more interested. I think he’s excited about rugby and he’s pretty new to it and enjoying it, but this was also a really good opportunity to come in on the ground floor of something. I feel very strongly about the MLR and the success that it will have.

What it’s like to… Own a Major League Rugby team

Brazil nuts: Scoring at the Rio Olympics, 2016 (Getty Images)

“Your typical American wouldn’t know anything about the rugby landscape, let alone this opportunity with a professional team. He’d watched me play a bit, sees it as an opportunity and also has an understanding of the impact it can have on the community in New England. It will help bring some honest sport and some big relationships.

“It’s exciting (ownership) because you can have some impact, change things, influence what happens by what you do and how hard you work. Whereas coming into NFL ownership for instance – and I know it’s an extreme difference – but at this point it’s a well-oiled machine. You’re gonna just be a cog in the machine and I think it’s exciting to be part of something you can impact.”

Related: The exchange of ideas between union and American Football

What it’s like to… Own a Major League Rugby team

Chung intercepts (Getty)

So far the two NFL stars have been hands-off. They feel their experiences in one of Football’s most successful sides can be a help, though as it stands neither have reached out to any team owners they know for advice. Yet.

Rugby is part of Ebner’s DNA. Turned onto the game by his father, he played it through high school in Columbus, Ohio. After standing out in his first US try-outs, he made it to two U19 World Cups and the inaugural Junior World Championship with the Eagles.

But with amateur club rugby the only real avenue left after those events, Ebner pivoted to American Football to become a walk-on at Ohio State – a daunting move considering he never played the sport in high school. Progressing rapidly and impressing with his physical defence, the safety was eventually drafted to the Patriots.

“Winning in the Olympics would be a huge push. Americans understand what medals look like!”

Today, the defensive and special teams star has three serious pieces of jewellery for his perseverance. Yet rugby still calls to him. He sees a bright future for the league which will feature 13 teams in 2021 (though professional rugby in Hawaii will take this it to 14) – including newbies the LA Giltinis and Dallas Jackals – split over eastern and western conferences.

Having attended some of the Free Jacks’ exhibition games, Ebner and Chung’s detailed questioning over the franchise’s direction impressed the
team owners, before the duo even made it known that they would invest in the team. Ebner also had an existing relationship with CEO Alex Magleby and he was impressed by work done by the Free Jacks group in the community.

Greater exposure is such a necessity for rugby in the States, though.

“I think rugby needs a push from every angle; any and every push it can get,” Ebner agrees. “Crossovers athletes are obviously good (stories), but you need to bring in people. In New England there are fans of Football and then we have guys like a Patrick Chung, who can just show them something they probably didn’t even know was a thing – or even if they did, really get them to look at it. That’s how you influence a community. That’s how you change the dynamic. That’s how you get people involved who otherwise wouldn’t have been there at all and get some serious numbers.

What it’s like to… Own a Major League Rugby team

Land of the Free: Free Jacks in action (Getty Images)

“And as I said, a push from every angle is only going to help. The US winning in the Olympics would be a huge push. Americans understand what medals look like! They’d look a lot closer at a winning team. That would be big. And with the MLR, signing well-known professional athletes with all these followers, those eyes are going to see it. It just takes a few of those international names to have a great experience with it and carry that on to their friends.”

Ebner explains that for now his NFL career takes precedence. He has to “put bread on my own table”. But while he never knew that ownership was going to be the path he would eventually go down, he was certain he would come back to rugby, whether it was playing touch or helping out a youth set-up.

He is also not averse to coming back to play for an MLR side in the future, once his Football days are done. He could come full circle in the most physical of ways. Perhaps he could convince others to come with him.

This article originally appeared in the August 2020 edition of Rugby World magazine.

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