New England Patriots safety and United States Olympian Nate Ebner has compared his two codes – rugby union and American football – in an interview with ESPN.
The 29-year-old – one of the few athletes to go from American football to rugby – opened up about his transition between the two sports and offered advice to rugby converts Jordan Mailata and Christian Scotland-Williamson – both of whom have found their way onto pre-season NFL rosters despite no prior American football experience.
Ebner didn’t take football seriously until he got to university.
“I grew up playing football. I didn’t play in high school. But I’ve been around it; I watched it every day. It’s part of our culture,” he said.
“I was in my second year in college and I had three years of eligibility before the NFL when I walked on, so I had some time to do it [transition] at Ohio State.”
“For me going from rugby to football — I had a lot to learn. I couldn’t just let the game flow and play because your footwork is important, your eye control is important, what you’re thinking about in certain situations is important.
“That first year was actually a humbling experience, because I thought I would be able to go in and lean on my athletic ability a bit more. But learning the ins and outs and stuff that has to do with football – offensive formations as a defensive player, and all the different packages, I could go on and on about that. It’s basically a lot to learn. It was hard. You play rugby — there are 15 guys on the field and you don’t sub [in and out].”
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As for advice for Mailata (Philadelphia Eagles) and Scotland-Williamson (Pittsburgh Steelers), Ebner stressed that learning the game would be a grind.
“There’s a lot to learn, but you just have to grind away at it. That’s the biggest thing I can say,” said Ebner.
“My biggest learning years were definitely my rookie year in the NFL. I played three years of college football and didn’t really grasp it like I did in my rookie year. So to come straight into the NFL right away with no real experience, it’s going to be challenging [for Mailata and Scotland-Williamson]. It’s challenging enough as it is just to make it, for everyone, even if you grew up playing the sport your whole life.”
Ebner continued to explain what surprised him most when transitioning between the sports.
“The amount of studying that you have to do. In rugby, and coming from all my experiences, we studied film a little bit but not to that extent; it’s a game where you go out and practice. The amount of film study was a surprise, how much detail went into it,” he said.
“Another surprise is that people who really understand football, it’s almost like a second language. There’s so much verbiage, and that verbiage changes from team to team and can even change from week to week within the same team. But there’s definitely a football language out there that you have to learn and understand. That was news to me as well.”
Ebner will be hoping to secure a third Super Bowl ring with the Patriots this season, while Mailata (drafted in the seventh round of the 2018 draft) and Scotland-Williamson (undrafted) will be fighting to earn a spot on their respective rosters.
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