With future college players Bo Delande, Connor Dietz and J.B. Strahler leading the way, the Hilliard Davidson High School football team captured its first state championship in 2006 when it beat Mentor 36-35 in double overtime in the Division I final.
What no one at that time could have predicted is a Davidson senior not affiliated with the football program would go on to play at Ohio State and in the National Football League.
Nate Ebner, a 2007 Davidson graduate, was selected by the New England Patriots in the sixth round of the 2012 NFL draft with the 197th pick. He did not play football in high school because of his commitment to rugby.
“I had the (Junior) World Cup coming up (in rugby) and didn’t want to risk injury,” he said. “(The Davidson football team) won the state championship that year. ... It was bittersweet not to be able to play my senior year, but I ended up going to the Junior World Cup, so I don’t really regret it.”
“Coach (Brian) White tried to get him (to come) out (for the football team), but he was going to miss a good amount of time playing rugby overseas,” said Delande, a 2007 graduate who went on to play for Ohio State, while Dietz played at Air Force and Strahler at Ohio University. “It’s been great to see him make that transition from rugby to the football field.”
Ebner, who earned a football scholarship at Ohio State as a senior, made the Patriots’ roster this season as a special teams player and backup safety. He had 12 total tackles through 15 games for New England, which won the AFC East to secure a playoff berth for the fourth consecutive season and ninth time in 10 seasons.
“I’m just trying to learn as much as I can,” Ebner said. “I’m kind of taking it week to week and not dwelling on anything that’s happened. I’ve been playing special teams throughout the season and, because of some injuries, have been able to step in and play some safety.
“Obviously, it’s a great opportunity to be a part of an organization like this. I’m excited to have a chance to play for the Patriots.”
Learning the nuances of football has been an ongoing process for the 6-foot, 210-pound Ebner, who turned 24 on Dec. 14 but has been playing the sport full time only since fall 2009.
He began playing rugby at age 12 and earned a spot on the U19 U.S. Junior National team in 2007 and on the U20 team in 2008. He was named the team’s Most Valuable Player in the International Rugby Board Junior World Cup both years.
Ebner’s interest in rugby stemmed from his father. Jeff Ebner played for the Des Moines (Iowa) Rugby Club in the 1970s before moving to Ohio and helped coach his son at the youth level as well as with the
Tri-Village Rugby Club, which is comprised primarily of high school players from Grandview, Hilliard and Upper Arlington.
Jeff Ebner was killed Nov. 14, 2008, at his auto-salvage business in Springfield in an attempted robbery. According to his obituary, he once played rugby for the United States in the Maccabiah Games.
Willie Anderson pleaded guilty to the homicide in July 2010 and is serving a sentence of 15 years to life.
“(Nate) is just like his dad,” said Tom Fetters, a 2006 Davidson graduate who has been friends with the younger Ebner since 2004 and is the coach of Tri-Village. “(Jeff) was a great coach who would teach the fundamentals and would keep us in shape. He would say, ‘In everything you do in life and rugby, whatever you do, you’ve got to finish strong.’ ”
Delande, who was a backup running back and special teams player for Ohio State and spent time as Ebner’s college roommate, said it was tough watching Ebner endure the loss of his father.
“I can’t even imagine myself in that situation,” Delande said. “He put all of that into a good direction and it got him to where he is today.”
After competing in rugby at the international level as a teenager, Ebner joined the Ohio State football team as a walk-on in 2009 and had seven tackles that season while playing special teams.
Late that season, Ebner and several of his teammates wore rubber bracelets inscribed with the words of Ebner’s father, “Finish Strong.” The Buckeyes won their final six games, including a 26-17 victory over Oregon in the Rose Bowl.
In June 2010, Ebner played for Ohio State’s club rugby team in the USA Sevens Rugby Collegiate Championship Invitational at Crew Stadium.
He continued to play football the next two seasons. As a senior in 2011, he saw action on defense for just three snaps, but his play on special teams and the scout team earned him a scholarship.
Also as a senior, he was voted most inspirational player by his teammates and received the Bo Rein Award. He finished that season with 11 tackles and one sack.
The Columbus Olympic Rugby Conference, which was formed for high school sevens teams in central Ohio in 2011, presented the Nate Ebner Player of the Year Award last spring to 2012 Upper Arlington graduate Jaime Barlow.
“We used to call him ‘Skeletor’ because he was (6 feet tall) and about 150 pounds when he was younger, but he filled out pretty well,” Fetters said. “He was like lightning when he touched the ball. His work ethic was like no other, just beyond anybody I’ve ever met. Whether he was running 20 sprints or doing 50 reps, he worked as hard from the beginning to the end.”
With NFL coaches and scouts watching, Ebner ran 4.55 seconds in the 40-yard dash, 4.04 in the shuttle and 6.59 in a three-cone drill during Ohio State’s pro day last March, less than two months before the NFL draft.
That quickness impressed New England enough to overlook his lack of football experience. His best game statistically this season came Oct. 28, when he had four solo tackles in a 45-7 win over St. Louis. He is listed on the Patriots’ roster as a third-string safety.
“I don’t think there are any kids playing college football who don’t dream of playing in the NFL,” Ebner said. “Obviously, the whole experience of being at Ohio State was huge. Certain parts of (pro football) are harder.
Everything is more detailed.”
“To be honest, I was surprised he didn’t get drafted earlier,” Fetters said. “Anything he puts his mind to, he gives 130 percent. I said to some of my buddies when he got drafted that he seems like a (New England coach Bill) Belichick guy.”
Delande has enjoyed watching his former college teammate play in the NFL.
“It’s cool to see one of your buddies at that level,” Delande said. “He’s just a naturally gifted athlete and, along with his work ethic, it’s put him where he’s at right now.”