Father’s spirit never leaves OSU player

Jeff Ebner was killed shortly after his son decided to walk on the football team

“I love working out,” said Nate, who after not playing high school football and competing in rugby his freshman year at Ohio State University now wears the vaunted Scarlet and Gray on autumn Saturdays. “It was something me and my dad always had together.”

Now, if he could just lift the weight off his heavy heart. Jeff died a year ago this coming Saturday — Nov. 14, 2008 — after defending his family-owned business, Ebner and Sons in Springfield, during a robbery.

Though the weight is sometimes nearly unbearable, it is even more unbearable to abandon what was his closest connection to his dad.

“It’s what I did with him,” Nate admitted. “Now, it reminds me of him all the time.

“It makes me stronger every day,” he continued. “It was always a competition, to see who could do more. I’m at the point now that I’m about to beat his max bench press. The next time I max out, I’ll probably beat it.

“That will be pretty emotional. I just wish he could see that.”

And if he could?

“He wouldn’t be shocked,” said Nate. “He’d probably tell me I’m going to do a lot more than that when I reach my full potential.

“He’d say, ‘I’m no longer the strongest guy in the family,’ and that would be something he’d be proud of.”

The strength of Jeff’s presence continues to grow in Nate, a finely chiseled sophomore who is listed as 6-foot-1, 197-pound freshman in eligibility on the Buckeyes’ roster.

“I wouldn’t say he made me what I am today, but he instilled the values that made me what I am today,” he said.

“He was a part of everything I did,” Nate continued. “He was the only person who understood about what I was talking about. I can tell my mom, and I know she cares, but it’s not the same.

“We were best friends.”

Nate and Jeff not only shared a love for pumping iron, but also for rugby. Jeff’s was well-known in the rugby circles, and Nate followed in his footsteps to become one of the top 19-and-under players in the nation. But he gave it all up right around the time of Jeff’s death.

“I haven’t played one game since then,” said Nate. “I had already decided I was going to walk on the football team before it happened. So it wasn’t something I stopped doing because he died.”

Giving up rugby wasn’t the same as the thought of abandoning his demanding, regimented workout routine.

“Just because I play football doesn’t mean I’ve grown further apart from him,” said Nate. “Playing rugby was a big part of my life. A bigger part of me was working out and lifting weights with him. So me being successful in any sport, he is a big part of it.”

Ebner certainly has seen that success on the football field. Walking on as a freshman and playing extensively less than a year after not having played organized football for five years just doesn’t happen in a program such as Ohio State’s very often.

“Athletically, I have a lot of confidence in what I want to do,” said Nate. “I felt I could make it in football. So I just went with it, and it turned out to be a good thing.”

Nate has played on special teams in eight of OSU’s nine games (not counting Saturday’s encounter at Penn State), totaling six tackles — four of them solos. That’s just the beginning, in Nate’s mind. He has much bigger plans to make much bigger contributions.

“I really feel like it will be within a year or two time,” he said of his plans to be a starting defensive back. “As of now, it’s just special teams.”

Even though he didn’t play in high school, don’t think Nate was a football novice.

“I did play my whole life; I just didn’t play in high school,” he said.

In fact, he doesn’t see it as a disadvantage.

“With a program like Ohio State, it almost doesn’t matter,” he said. “I have learned so much. I’ve picked up so much from some great coaches.”

Still going from rugby player to football player is quite an accomplishment. In fact, it usually happens the other way around — from football to rugby.

Many collegiate football wannabes would like to be where he is right now.

“It makes me feel good,” he said. “I think about it. It’s just that I guess I wanted it, and my athletic abilities gave me the opportunity that they (other athletes) didn’t have. My strength, my agility. I work extremely hard to be where I’m at.”

He’s driven to go further.

“I want to take football as far as I can,” said Nate. “I look at it as, if I just walk onto Ohio State and am able to play, and after a couple of years of experience, then what will it become further down the road?”

He’s anxious to find out. Still, he’ll always have a Plan B for when football is over — whenever that might be.

“If it doesn’t work out, I’m not going to drop sports all together,” he said. “I’ve done too much work in the weight room and I have too much love for rugby not to go back.

“I’m definitely not hanging up the boots. That’ll always be a part of me.”

So will his dad.

“He played in the first (rugby) game I’ve ever played,” said Nate. “I think about him every day. He’s always with me in spirit.”

Contact this reporter at (937) 328-0364 or krowe@coxohio.com.

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