Senior Nate Ebner is a special teams mainstay who took an unusual path toward being a captain, as he will be Saturday when the Buckeyes host Toledo. Football is not Ebner's first sport. He did not even play the sport before he walked on at OSU in 2009. Ebner happens to be a rugby player who plays football.
Like most of the players on the Buckeyes' roster, Ebner was a good athlete in high school. Instead of helping as Hilliard (Ohio) Davidson won a state football championship in 2006, however, Ebner was preparing for something bigger – suiting up for the United States' Under-19 and U-20 squads.
"Of course I wanted to be out there with my friends, but I also had a World Cup coming up in the spring that I needed to be healthy for," Ebner said. "I had things I had to take care of."
Ebner did take care of business, participating in the U-19 Rugby World Championships in 2007 and the International Rugby Board's Junior World Championship in 2008. Following those accomplishments, Ebner turned his attention to another sport – football.
The 6-0, 205-pounder joined the Buckeyes for the '09 season and recorded seven tackles while working primarily on special teams. He was a star on the scout team as well, earning scout team player of the week honors twice. The following season he made 12 stops, including three against Michigan and two against Marshall and Illinois, respectively.
Every time Ebner was on the field he tried to make the most of it.
"I just worked as hard as I could every day and gave as much effort as I could whenever I got the chance to do it," Ebner said. "I think Ohio State and all the players embraced me with open arms. It was easy to become part of the family."
This fall Ebner is looked upon to lead a kickoff coverage team that had its share of problems during the 2010 season. Ebner made three tackles against Akron in OSU's season-opening victory, including his first career sack when he saw the field in the fourth quarter while lining up at safety. His efforts were rewarded when he was named one of three captains for Saturday's game against Toledo.
"It's extremely exciting, especially being a senior and knowing I can lead the guys out there," Ebner said of the honor. "It's a great opportunity. It's humbling. I'm proud to be a captain."
Ebner has been a leader for the Buckeyes since joining the team. In 2009, following Ohio State's midseason loss at Purdue, Ebner spoke to the team and talked to them about a lesson his late father, Jeff, taught him. The elder Ebner was a talented rugby player who stressed to his son to finish strong in everything he did, a motto the Buckeyes used as they won six straight games to end the season with another Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl victory.
"His father taught him such a good work ethic," senior safety and special teams player Nate Oliver said. "He's brought that to the team and he's inspired a lot of guys."
Unsurprisingly, Oliver was elated to see Ebner be rewarded with a scholarship, a reward Ebner was given by head coach Luke Fickell before the start of the season.
"When I found out he was on scholarship I was real happy for him because I knew he deserved it and he worked hard for it," Oliver said.
Ebner may be a scholarship football player now, but he is still a rugby player at heart. He played on Ohio State's rugby team last season and has not ruled out a return to international competition following the football season.
Until then, Ebner will continue to stand out on the football field thanks in part to his old-school look. The senior wears a neck roll, a subject of playful ridicule among teammates and something Ebner said looks awesome, and just recently started wearing gloves.
"Before then he'd wrap up his wrists in electrical tape," Oliver said. "He didn't care. It was just Nate. I think that's the rugby coming out of him."
Whether playing rugby or football, Ebner's energy has been infectious. Special teams coordinator Dick "Doc" Tressel said Ebner brings a "sort of joie di vivre," the French term for zest for life.
"He just loves it when he's out there," Tressel said. "He's flying. He's smiling. He's got a big old neck roll. You know he wants to run into somebody. … He's a role model."