FOXBORO -- It’s coming up on seven years since Jeff Ebner was killed. November 14, 2008. That’s the day Jeff died in a Miami, Ohio, hospital.
The cause was massive head injuries. They were inflicted by a man named Willie Anderson, who showed up to rob Ebner & Sons auto reclamation in Springfield, Ohio, the day before. Nate Ebner was a month shy of his 20th birthday when his father was murdered.
The anniversary of Jeff’s passing won’t make Nate think harder about him on that day. Jeff is on Nate’s mind every day.
“I’m not really the type that gets wrapped up in dates, as if, ‘Now I have to feel sad because this is the day that this happened . . . ’ or ‘This was his birthday . . . ’ " Ebner explained. "You think about those things, but to me, the relationship on a day-to-day basis, the amount I think about him every day, no one day is more important than another one."
Nate says this late on a Friday afternoon. We are standing outside the door to the Patriots locker room. He’s wearing a gray Patriots hoodie, a navy blue towel and flip flops. I’d asked him the day before if he’d answer a barrage of pithy, “What’s your favorite ice cream?”-type questions for a feature I call “Irrelevant Questions.” He agreed.
In his first three seasons with the team, he'd showed no interest in being interviewed, ever. Not hostile. Just so silent and serious that -- unless there were something pressing that needed to be asked -- it seemed best to leave him be.
He seemed to lighten up toward the end of 2014. This year, he’d been even more engaging. So I figured I’d ask about his rugby background and the role he had in blowing up the Colts’ fake punt and why he was so quiet.
We hadn’t linked up in the locker room but he agreed to give me time now before he took a salt bath and left for the night. I didn’t want to keep him. But I wanted to give him the chance to speak about his father if he wanted to. I figured he might not.
In preparing my questions, I'd learned what happened to his father. And realized it was Jeff that introduced Nate to rugby. And that they were inseparable. And wondered how in God’s name that impacts a kid.
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“We basically would take the parts out of cars, but the main thing we did was buy broken-down cars, crush them and then take the crushed cars, stack them, then load semi-trucks with the crushed cars and sell the steel. That was my main job, crushing cars, loading semi-trucks. I loaded a semi-truck with 24 crushed cars at age 15 before I had my license. And the crusher didn’t have brakes on it.”
The way he tells it, you know Nate Ebner believes in his DNA that he had the coolest job any 15-year-old could imagine.
His parents -- Jeff and Nancy -- divorced when he was young, but Nate still spent a tremendous amount of time with his father. In the summer, Nate would go to work with Jeff. When he was young, he’d simply raise hell all day.
“I had three dirtbikes and four-wheelers and we had some acreage that wasn’t stacked with cars,” he says. “When I was younger, from about 10 to 13, I was riding dirt bikes like it was my job. My dad would go into work and I would put my helmet on and I would literally ride for 10 hours.”
By the time he was 14, he was driving a loader around the yard, doing a full day’s work. Sometimes when the work was done, he’d stack cars in a grid, call his buddies and play the most diabolical games of paintball you could imagine. Or they’d beat out windows with bats. Or shoot BB guns.
But usually when the work was done, there was rugby.
Jeff, who was 53 when he died, played in college at the University of Minnesota and kept right on playing into adulthood. He was part of two Ohio-based rugby clubs and -- starting when his son was about 6 -- he introduced Nate to the game.
“He didn’t push me,” says Nate. “He never made me do anything. He just played and enjoyed playing. And I enjoyed playing as a young kid. It was part of our culture because it was something he did. In the summer, I’d go work in the junkyard with him all day and then we’d go work out. That was probably at the age of 14 through high school. We’d work all day, work out in the afternoon and run hills. Tuesdays and Thursdays we’d drive to Columbus and go play rugby with the 7s team. He was still playing and the 7s was something we all did to run around and still play and stay in shape.”
Nate’s power, speed and fearlessness made him a perfect fit for rugby. His early introduction to the game put his development far past players who were years older.
At 16, Nate was playing on US Rugby’s U19 team in the World Championships in Dubai. When he was 17, he played for the U.S. Men’s National team in Rugby 7s.
Jeff coached Nate’s rugby team at Hilliard Davidson High School, just outside Columbus.
“We were as close as I could imagine a father-son relationship being,” Nate explains. “We did everything together, rugby, working out, skiing -- we went out West about three different times -- [and] I’d be with him in the junkyard all summer. I didn’t even really have friends in Springfield because I was working so much with him that if we weren’t working, we’d be lifting weights. When I got into college (Ohio State), he’d be coming up to Columbus, making the 40-minute drive and he got a membership at a gym called the ACC and we’d get after it there. We did everything together. Especially as I got older, it wasn’t like as much parent-child as it was friendship because we enjoyed each other so much. We were very close. From the beginning.
“Even living with my mom, I would still see my dad two or three times a week, let alone the weekends when he had me. That shows the effort he put in to see me. I lived in Cincinnati for a stint of time. From Springfield, that’s a good ride. I couldn’t tell you how many times he came from Springfield after work to have dinner with me and then he’d turn around and drive back. How many fathers are doing that?”
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Playing club rugby at Ohio State wasn’t getting it done for Nate anymore. It was the fall of 2008 and he was a sophomore. Nate wanted to walk-on to the football team the next year. He told Jeff his plan.
“He said that, ‘If your end goal is to make it to the NFL, you should do it. If you’re just doing it because you don’t want to play rugby at a club at Ohio State, maybe you should find another outlet.’ But I wanted to play in the NFL. We decided that together the last time I saw him for dinner. Next thing I know, he’s dead and I gotta move on.
“I’m sitting there after having that conversation," he recalls. "I really wanted to just . . . make it. I put so much into it -- that was a good distraction for me -- but at the same time it was something we talked about and a motivation for me that I wasn’t gonna fail at it. After he passed I wanted to make sure I carried it out.”
The months immediately after Jeff’s murder were bleak for his son. Nate withdrew from school for a period. He isolated himself, grew quiet.
How did he resurface?
“My mom played a big part in that,” he explains. “For a good two months, I was not in a good place. He was my best friend and father figure and I just wondered where I was gonna go from there. That was the person I always confided in when I needed something. Every aspect of my life was changed.
“I remember sitting there in the house with my hood up and my mom came up and said, ‘You’re not gonna walk around with your hood up acting like a zombie anymore.’ She was a big part of me getting back on it. She knew I wanted to play football, so she made sure I could afford to pay for the training to get that done, to train and get prepared. She pushed me in that regard and didn't let me sit around and feel sorry for myself. She painted the picture of, ‘Your dad wouldn’t want you to be like this.’ ”
The following spring, Ebner -- back at Ohio State -- went out for football. With his black beard, a mane of hair, piercing eyes and no interest in conversation, he ended up with the nickname “Leonidas”, a nod to the Spartan warrior whose story was told in the 2006 movie, 300.
He played like a warrior.
“Football was good for me,” he admits. “I would have done some . . . (the emotions) gotta come out somehow, and there was only so much rugby I could have played at the time.
"I wonder, looking back, what people at Ohio State thought because I would just come in, do my work and leave without saying a word. Try to just beat everybody’s ass and go home. Let what I do speak for itself. I didn’t know about football. I didn’t know those guys. I didn’t come in with anyone. I came to the team as a junior. I didn’t know these dudes, so I was trying to make a way for myself. And my dad had passed a couple months before I walked onto the team. I NEEDED football then.”
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If there is bitterness toward Willie Anderson -- who admitted his guilt at a 2010 trial and was sentenced to 15 years in prison -- Nate Ebner never mentions it. Nor is there obvious melancholy that Jeff Ebner hasn’t seen what Nate’s become.
“I definitely think about him a lot and I don’t try to run away from it,” he explains. “I tell a lot of people how lucky I was. There’s a lot of people that lose parents. Two of my best friends growing up -- one lost his dad at 13 years old because his dad had a heart attack. What time is more important to a boy than 13 to 17 years old? You need a father in your life. A man figure. And that affected his life. Drastically. I think how lucky I am. I had my dad, not only until I was 19, but the relationship I had with him was unmatched. You see dads who don’t want to be a part of a kid’s life or don’t put the effort in or are consumed with other things.
“You don’t know at a young age, but the older I get and the more I see people, the more I respect him for the way he raised me,” Ebner continues. “The effort he put in. He used to say, the way kids spell love is T-I-M-E. When I would play football when I was 6 or 8 years old, they called him ‘Mr. On-Time.’ They knew he was coming from 90 minutes away and he was never late. Never late for anything I was involved in. That says a lot about who he was and the importance he placed on family. When I have children, I want to uphold that level of commitment because I think it makes a difference in the character they have. I look at myself, and the way I am had a lot to do with my parenting.”
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It's closing in on 5:30 p.m. now. The bustle around us of stadium workers buttoning things down for the night and locker-room attendants rushing to clean up before they leave makes me feel like I’ve overstayed. And I don’t want to be invasive, but I want to ask about this seeming peace Ebner’s reached.
“It made me stronger in being by myself. If that makes any sense,” he said. “A lot of people are uncomfortable with either themselves or they feel they have to lean on someone else in their life. His passing for some reason made me feel like: I had him with me but now, I’m strong enough by myself. No matter where I go in this world, I’m gonna be able to handle it. I don’t need anybody else. I don’t need to lean on anybody else -- and it’s okay to lean on other people, I don’t mean to say that -- but I’m saying I never will feel self-conscious about who I am or dependent on someone else for my existence or success or happiness. If that makes any sense whatsoever.
“I used to wonder before he died what I would do if he wasn’t there,” he says. “But, again, it goes back to how he raised me. Obviously I was strong enough when he was gone to pick myself up and move forward and try to make the most of my life. My mom had a lot to do with it -- I don’t want to minimize that at all -- but he had a lot to do with me being strong mentally and knowing that, whatever happens, it will work itself out. Some way. Or another.”