HOUSTON — Nate Ebner will probably take a well-deserved break after the New England Patriots’ season ends on Sunday.

Ebner, a safety and special teams standout for New England, will have performed on two of the world’s biggest sporting stages in the last seven months.

In August, he was a member of the United States rugby sevens Olympic team in Rio de Janeiro. On Sunday, he’ll take the field in Super Bowl LI against the Atlanta Falcons at NRG Stadium.

“They’re different,” said Ebner, who was the first active NFL player to ever compete in the Olympics. “But both very special, both mean the world to me.”

A rugby star when he was growing up in Dublin, Ohio, making the U.S. nation sevens when he was just 17, Ebner has become an outstanding special teams player for the Patriots. His 19 special teams tackles tied for the NFL lead this year and Pro Football Focus, a website that grades players, selected him as one of the best special team cover players in the game.

But for him to compete at the highest level in both sports this year has his teammates in awe.

“It’s unbelievable when you think about the journey he’s made this last calendar year,” said Matthew Slater, New England’s special teams captain.

Ebner didn’t play football until he attended Ohio State, when he walked on as a special teamer. The Patriots saw enough in him to select him in the sixth round of the 2012 draft.

Last January, soon after the Patriots lost to Denver in the AFC championship game, Ebner began talking about trying out for the Olympic team with Slater, one of his closest teammates. When he began contract negotiations with the Patriots – he was a free agent – that was something both sides discussed.

“Part of that negotiation was not just playing for the Patriots but the opportunity to play in the Olympics and so forth,” said Coach Bill Belichick. “And then once we got past that point we talked about when he came back what that would be like.”

Ebner knew the task to make the Olympic team would be daunting. “I had to give everything I had to make it,” he said.

mike-lowe in houstonHe hadn’t played in six years and the roster of 12 would be selected out of a pool of 28, many of whom had played on the national team for years.

“I had a little rust I had to knock off,” said Ebner. And not just physically. Rugby, while a physical game like football, is played with a different mentality. It took Ebner a while to regain his footing.

He joined the team in March and competed in several international tournaments, getting better each week. He was named to the team in July but it wasn’t until a match against New Zealand in Florida a week before the team left for Rio that Ebner felt he was back.

“That’s where I said I’m where I need to be,” said Ebner.

In the Olympics, Ebner scored two tries as the U.S. finished ninth in the first rugby tournament in the Olympics in 92 years. The Patriots kept tabs on him – especially Slater, who communicated with him throughout the tryout and the Games – even watching him play on TV.

One day after the U.S. played its last match, he returned to Foxborough to join the Patriots in training camp. The Patriots had to ease him back into football shape. “It was a little bit of a break which I think was good for him,” said Belichick.

Ebner responded. “He’s done a great job for us, worked really hard,” said Belichick. “He’s helped make a lot of his teammates better and allowed them to play better with his communication, anticipation, recognition and experience. This is by far his best year.”

Ebner struggled when asked to compare the two events. The Olympics are played on a global scale, he said, multiple games played over multiple days against world-class competition. The Super Bowl, he said, “is one three-hour game, one moment that you practice for over and over and spend hours and hours preparing for.”

He certainly appreciated the opportunity to play in both.

“I’m lucky,” he said. “I’ve been able to stay healthy and experience this journey.”

MATTHEW MULLIGAN, the Detroit Lions’ tight end from West Enfield, Maine, is helping a couple of fans attend the Super Bowl.

Mulligan donated two Super Bowl tickets to a Celebrity for Charities raffle that includes a VIP trip for two to Super Bowl LI.

Tickets cost $2 each – with a minimum spend of $10 – and can be purchased at www.BigGameRaffle.org. Proceeds will benefit the Flutie Foundation, an organization dedicated to helping families affected by autism, the Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation and the Pete Frates, FrateTrain ALS Fund.

Mulligan, who also played at the University of Maine and for the Patriots (2013), donated the tickets after speaking with his agent, Kristen Kuliga, who also represents former NFL star Doug Flutie.

He said he was happy to help someone get to the game.

“I want people to be able to enjoy something they like to do,” he said. “Really, I have played just an insignificant part in this. I just hope that everyone enjoys themselves. They’ve got the opportunity to be at one of sport’s biggest spectacles.”

Mulligan said he also met his wife, Stephanie, at a Flutie Foundation event.

HOWIE LONG of FOX Sports was asked how he would handle being part of the network broadcasting the Super Bowl and watching his son, Chris, play in it. Chris Long is a defensive end for the Patriots.

“You have kids?” he asked the reporter. “How would you watch it? I’m a dad first. No question.

“Now that being said, I have a job to do and I’ll prepare to do my job and talk about all aspects of the game – defense, offense, special teams, coaching, history – and give my opinions both in the pregame and halftime and the postgame. I’ll be professional but I’ll be watching the game as a dad.”

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

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Twitter: MikeLowePPH


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