Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Rugby player Ebner an unusual pick, even for Belichick


May 2, 2012

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Bill Belichick gets criticized by some for not providing enough entertainment value in his daily press conferences during the season, but the coach's creative juices flourish each year when draft time rolls around.

No one makes the NFL draft more fun than the New England Patriots' coach. No one is more unpredictable. No one is willing to take as many gambles in as many different ways. Belichick did it again Saturday, on the last day of the three-day draft, with several more unexpected moves, topped by one of his most improbable choices yet.

First, he made another trade, his fourth of the weekend, to give his team more selections. Then, he used one of the choices, a sixth-rounder and the 197th overall, to take a rugby player.

He drafted Nate Ebner even though Ebner has been on a football field for a play from scrimmage for exactly three plays in his high school and college life.

Ebner was the shock not only of the day, but of the entire draft. He grew up in Dublin, Ohio, in Ohio State country. He played some PeeWee football, but switched early on to rugby because his late father, Jeff, had played rugby. He took part in age-group events and excelled, to the point of being named MVP in age-group world championships in 2007 and 2008. He was hoping to become a professional rugby player.

In 2009, he decided to walk on the Buckeye football team. The 6-foot, 205-pounder is listed as a safety, but only played that position for three plays in his entire career (and had a sack on one of those plays). His niche was special teams.

"I enjoy running down as fast as you can, man. It's exciting. It's crazy, such a rush," he said. "It's just one big blur, then it's over. I don't know, maybe I've got a screw loose."

Playing on special teams, he feels, is similar to some of the things he does in rugby.

"It comes from the fact that we hit each other, there's a lot of running and some big dudes," he said.

Belichick said he did not watch any rugby tapes of Ebner. It was seeing what he did on special teams that led his team to the decision to draft him.

"We think he has a lot of good football in front of him," Belichick said. "Of course, we had good connections at Ohio State. Obviously, that played a part in it."

Ebner ended up leading Ohio State in special teams tackles and was given a scholarship for his senior year. The "connections" Belichick spoke about referred to one of his coaches this past season, former Patriots star Mike Vrabel.

"I can't say enough about him," Ebner said. "I learned so much from him ... What an amazing guy. I can't thank him enough for the help he has given me ... He made it clear to me. He said, 'With the things you do here at Ohio State, you can play for years in the NFL doing that.'"

When NFL scouts went to the Ohio State campus for that school's Pro Day this spring, Ebner was allowed to work out for them. He turned heads with an impressive performance. He was timed at 4.48 in the 40 and had strong numbers in agility drills. Afterwards, he had meetings with several teams, including the Patriots. It gave him hope that he might get drafted, or at least get a chance to sign as a free agent with an NFL team.

"I didn't want to expect anything. I didn't want to get overly excited," he said. When the Patriots called Saturday to tell him they were drafting him, he had trouble comprehending with it.

"Words can't describe how excited I am to be part of this organization," he said.

As if his story was not enough on its own, it became more complicated four years ago when his father, who owned an auto business, was beaten to death in a robbery. The killer has been convicted and sent to prison.

"Obviously it was devastating," Ebner said. "Nobody wants to lose their father, especially the way that happened. The type of person he was and our relationship, I could only draw strength from it.

"I never really was one, like I've said to people, to pity myself. I don't know how he would feel about me feeling bad for myself because he was gone. He was one to say every day, 'If I die tomorrow, I wouldn't be mad about it, the way I lived.' So I don't want to, as his son, be sad about it," he added. "I just tried to draw strength from it. I'm so lucky to have a person like that in my life, especially as a father figure. He was amazing."

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