New England Patriots

(Photo by Bob Socci)

  • Twenty-three miles north of Gillette Stadium, at the corner of Quincy’s Southern Artery and Hancock Street, a centuries-old sport that helped birth America’s Game is being played by the area’s hottest team.

    Owned by a group that includes two former Patriots and coached by a South African with a lifelong fascination with American history and longing to come to New England, specifically, the Free Jacks lead Major League Rugby’s Eastern Conference with a 9-2 record. Unbeaten at home, they host the NOLA Gold at 3 p.m. Sunday at Veteran’s Memorial Stadium.

    Like seven other home dates, the late-afternoon match fills a relatively small window in a morning-to-evening festival of sport, music, food and craft beer. All celebrated with a symphony of international accents and a camaraderie universal in what Winston Churchill dubbed “a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen.”

    It’s a new world at the 85-year-old stadium where the Free Jacks play and front office packages a sport invented in 1823 with a modern marketing touch. A few weeks ago, I wanted to explore it.

    Before then, my only connection to rugby was a shirt style. The kind found in the Land’s End catalog. Colorful. Often striped. Always white collared. I arrived at the same time as the New York Ironworkers, who stepped off their Academy coach into a cold drizzle.

    They looked more like brick houses than the Big Apple skyscrapers built by the inspiration for the club’s nickname — broad-shouldered, calves and quads bulging. And yes, collared jerseys.

    Missing, of course, were helmets and pads, like what Nate Ebner wore when he made tackles for the Patriots in the NFL. In 2020, two years after the Free Jacks founding by Alex Magleby and Erikk Anderson, Ebner and ex-Pat buddy Patrick Chung joined them as investors.

    Ebner was on his way to the stadium. Meanwhile, country artist Alexandra Kay sang with her band while fans bought souvenirs, ate from concessions and drank from an impressive list of craft beers. Among them, is Free Jacks IPA, produced by Baxter Brewing in Lewiston, Maine.

    Packaged in a red, white and blue can (of course), the brew bears the club’s logo — a hand of a Free Jack (the everyday person laboring for liberty and common good) gripping a lantern (shining light on the road ahead) — and motto, “TOGETHER WE RIDE.”

    Before indulging, I had to eat.

    A sign caught my attention: “CHOWDAAAH HEAD-TO-HEAD,” printed above illustrations of New York and New England cups in boxing gloves. But only one crock pot entered the ring.

    Perfect on a raw, wet day, it sat on a table, warming creamy white stock and signaling New England’s first win of a Sunday sweep. The ‘challenger’ was a no-show.

    Just then, Ebner, the three-time Super Bowl champ, arrived alongside his lovely wife, Chelsey. They took seats in a covered section adjacent to the touchline (sideline to me).

    Wearing thick black hair and a beard, Ebner matched a Patriots cap to Free Jacks sweats and white Nike sneakers. True to his team colors, all the way.

    Ebner had first worn the Pats uniform after being drafted in 2012 out of Ohio State, where he paused a standout rugby career to walk on to the football team. In 2016, he summered with U.S.A. Rugby and competed in the Rio Olympics. Shortly after joining Free Jacks ownership, he signed as a free agent with the Giants.

    Following the 2020 season, Ebner needed surgery on a torn quad, resulting from deteriorating knee cartilage. Knee problems persisted. Ebner missed the COVID-delayed Tokyo Olympics and played only six games — the last of his NFL career — in 2021.

    That year he wrote a book with Cincinnati Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty. Titled “Finish Strong: A Father’s Code and a Son’s Path,” it’s his homage to the late Jeff Ebner and parenting by being truly present.

    “My dad spelled love, t-i-m-e,” he says.

    Much of Ebner’s time since has involved rehabbing from surgeries using cartilage-forming cells from his body to restore damaged cartilage in both knees. It took about 15 months for one to feel good. The other is halfway there.

    Ebner moved to his native Ohio after an NFL decade living in the congested Northeast corridor between Boston and New York. He wrote in his book about enjoying “the constant search for space” on the rugby pitch. Nate and Chelsey found theirs returning to Columbus.

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    (Photo by Bob Socci)

    Still, a few rows from the turf where Ironworkers and Free Jacks loosened up, he was at home beside the pitch. Close again to Jeff.

    “Any time I’m on a rugby field, I feel closer to him than anywhere else,” Nate says, adding that a weight room offers the same sanctuary and spirit.

    Pumping iron, Jeff always said, gave them the only padding they needed on the pitch. He, too, was a muscular rugby standout, good enough to star at the University of Minnesota and go to Tel Aviv for the 1989 Maccabiah Games.

    Nate was his biggest fan since he was a tiny baby. His mom, Nancy Pritchett, used to set her little boy down next to fields from Columbus to Dayton. By age 6, he was running and tossing the ball around while Jeff did the same in the green-and-orange stripes of Scioto Valley RFC.

    “I’ve just been around it my whole life and through youth, with my dad being there, we spent a lot of time on the pitch,” Ebner says. “I always will feel that being around rugby.”

    At 13, Ebner was playing in a men’s league. Soon he was starring for national teams and competing in Junior World Cups. But opportunities to play high-level rugby beyond college were limited by U.S. borders.

    “You play for the national team, but outside of that, to have a career, you (had) to go to London or Japan or (elsewhere),” Ebner says. “Ultimately, that’s why I started playing football, because I didn’t want to leave the U.S. and do that.”

    His reality offers insight into why he’s invested, more than financially, in seeing the Free Jacks and MLR flourish. The league has grown from seven teams in 2018 to 13 currently. They play from Miami to Seattle, Toronto to San Diego.

    Rosters mostly feature imports. The Free Jacks have players from nine countries, as distant as Fiji and Tonga, Argentina and Australia. But MLR added a college draft in 2020 and teams, especially here, are actively growing the game at youth levels.

    “I look at what we’re doing here and building,” Ebner says. “That professional landscape for guys that grow up in this country (to) aspire to be a professional player in this league.

    “I think we’re knocking on the door to being one of the better professional leagues. Now there’s good rugby in Japan; there’s good rugby in France; there’s good rugby in South Africa, and even in England. But just like I didn’t want to go to France to play rugby, guys would much rather come to the United States.”

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    (Photo by Bob Socci)

    Head coach Scott Mathie played in England and coached the Griquas in his native South Africa before earning MLR Coach of the Year honors last season. Mathie has a wide and richly informed worldview of the sport. 

    Europe and New Zealand, for example, represent the highest, most consistent level of talent and pay. In Japan, he says, pay is better. However, the players are not. Here, the timing and length of the MLR season add to the league’s allure for young players from abroad.

    Take the South Pacific, where Super Rugby is the elite, longer-running circuit, while provincial rugby in New Zealand unfolds over a few months. 

    “(Young) players will play (provincial) for three months and if they’re good players, they get drafted into the Super Rugby squads they play for the other eight months or whatever it is,” Mathie explains. “If you’re really good, you get a three-year or two-year contract, but if you don’t make those shipping Super Rugby squads, those kinds of competitions, you end up only being a part-time player for three months.

    “So for them to get a gig in America playing in MRL is really great. It also allows them to keep pursuing the dream of going up another level in Super Rugby because they get to train year-round.”

    Mathie believes the top teams in MLR would be competitive in New Zealand’s provincial championship (NPC). He’s certain the business model the Free Jacks have holds more promise.

    “What we do is a lot more professional than what those teams are able to run,” he says. “We’ve got more coaches and a program that just has a bit more resources. So we’re able to offer those players a bit of growth, individual growth, game growth, so they can go back and try to achieve their dreams of making those big squads. If not, we get them for another year.”

    Magleby, who starred with and later oversaw the rugby program at Dartmouth, has coached national ‘sevens’ teams and held several top developmental positions for USA Rugby. He sees the difference between MLR and the best international leagues diminishing. 

    “The American development system is getting better every day,” he says. “It’s the collegiate system, but also then we’re getting athletes who may be American-eligible but were born in a different country. 

    “The good news on our end is there’s an oversupply of high-quality players around the world right now, and so we can have a really, really high-end product on the field that’s a world-class level product. For a new league, that’s really hard to beat. In soccer, MLS is awesome, but in comparison to the Premiership, that gap is significant. For us, very quickly we’ve been able to get pretty close to some of the best world pro talent.”

    Speaking a short while after Ebner, from the same seat, with the kickoff of the Free Jacks and Ironworkers fast approaching, Magleby’s twin boys were close, wearing team toques. Van Halen’s “Panama” played over the loudspeakers, replacing Kay, who’d finished her set by then. Magleby turned to the future.

    Around the region, youth flag rugby is budding. In Magleby’s hometown of Lyme, N.H., population 1,679, 170 kids, kindergarten through eighth grade, participate in a flag league. And in Quincy, home to the Free Jacks since July 2021, and Hanover, youth rugby is being played at the South Shore YMCA. 

    Free Jacks players are doing the teaching. Living in Quincy, Wollaston and nearby Dorchester, the players walk the community where they work. 

    “Players are accessible and you don’t get that a lot in modern sports, not that the other model is bad or anything is wrong with it; it’s just different,” Magleby says. “We’re like what NFL players were in the 50s and 60s. They were your next-door neighbors who played football as opposed to the untouchable nature of what it’s become.”

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    (Photo by Bob Socci)

    An NFL player of the 2010s, Ebner foresees Free Jacks becoming to youngsters what he and Patriots teammates like Chung were to local kids watching them at Gillette.

    “If you want young Americans to be professional rugby players, they have to aspire to be something,” he says. “They have to go together, in my mind. Now that we have it, I think, it’s really going to help the foundational work for rugby in this country. It’s just something I wish I had.”

    Luckily for us, he didn’t. Otherwise, Ebner may not have tried out for football, thus triggering the chain of events allowing him to explain rugby to the uninitiated in this space.

    “It’s a pretty simple game,” he says. “You can’t hit anybody unless they have the ball or unless they’re in a breakdown, called a ruck, a small competition over the ball right there. And that is what keeps the game continuously flowing. So it’s a nonstop game. You got to pass the ball backward. And if you want to go forward with the ball, the only way you can do that is to kick it.”

    Points are scored when a player runs the ball over the goal line and touches it on the ground. Rugby’s precursor to football’s touchdown is worth five points. One can also tally two points with a conversion kick and three points with a penalty kick. The goalpost is different from football’s; the objective is the same.

    “And you’ve got to be a good one-on-one tackler because (everyone), in a football sense, can’t go tackle the one guy because as soon as you do, they just pass it to somebody (else),” Ebner continues. “So, it’s a safer game in that respect because we’re not all just converging on one person.”

    A game of solid, clean hits and elusive running, Ebner likens rugby to basketball. When played well, it’s like watching the Celtics on the go — the Cousy-led C’s. 

    “The thing I like the most about it is the cohesiveness and the passing,” Ebner says. “Like when you watch a really good fast break in basketball and it’s 3-on-2 and you see the ball moving, as the defense is trying to mess it up, just the cohesion with the passes and it looks so smooth. You see a lot of that in rugby. I would honestly say that basketball is my best comparison to rugby because of those moments.”

    Also analogous to basketball, as played increasingly in this era, everyone on the pitch is expected to exhibit the same skills. Imagine, as Ebner does, laughing, an offensive lineman like ex-Patriot Marcus Cannon running with the ball.

    By nature, the game perpetuates its ethos.

    “It’s very democratizing,” Magleby says. “Everybody has to do things on the field that take a lot of work and a lot of grit. Everybody has to make decisions. And sometimes, when they make the wrong decisions, everybody has to support it.”

    As much as rugby means to him as a lifer, Magleby knows what smart people in the sports industry do: it’s more than the game.

    “If you just went to market and said, ‘It’s rugby,’ people would say, ‘I’m not interested,’ because they don’t know it…they won’t care because they’ve never been exposed to it,” he says. “Our job is to make sure we’re bringing in as many new opportunities for new demographics to come and be a part of rugby. They’re probably going to bring some friends. They may not necessarily know rugby, but there’s also a beer-tasting or a great musician. It’s much easier for them to say, ‘Oh, I’ll come.’”

    He cites Kay before she stopped singing in the rain.

    “Her concert just ended,” Magleby says. “(Attendees) were diehard country fans. The vast majority. She asked them, ‘Are you here for rugby?’ And most of them weren’t. But they’re all sticking around. Those are all new fans of the Free Jacks. It’s awesome. They have this great experience, which is family fun, but also a place where you can bring your old college buddies if you want.”

    A self-described football fan, Mathie doesn’t see why you wouldn’t enjoy the Free Jacks if you like the Patriots or Bruins.

    “If you enjoy watching those sports and you get introduced to rugby, you’re going, ‘Well, here’s a game that is 80 minutes, it’s always going and guys are battering each other,” he says. “I don’t know what’s going on, but I like the fact that there’s these high-intensity collisions and these lumps are sort of just throwing themselves around. I think it’d be very hard for sports lovers into those big sports in America to go, ‘Oh, no, I don’t enjoy that.’

    “It’s craft beer and watching guys run into each other. It doesn’t get better than that.”

    No sooner than Sunday’s “New England And The World” fest, the Free Jacks are throwing an “International Beer Biere Party” amid a rugby triple-header (starts at 10 a.m.), Chinese martial arts, Irish dancing and a night-capping concert featuring “The Crash Test Dummies.” They’re also bidding for a sixth straight win, including a victory over New York.

    If that’s not enticing enough, Ebner has something else to consider. The game is physical. But after playing rough, teams break bread together. And maybe crack open an IPA or two.

    “I think rugby is a huge part of a lot of the reason why I carry myself the way I do,” Ebner says of a sport inseparable from his late father. “Obviously, my dad influenced that, but ultimately it was the rugby communities and the brotherhoods I was thrown into and shown how you act. There are no egos in rugby.”

    Everyone’s in it together.

    “That’s the type of people that are on the field, and that’s the type of people that come and watch this game,” he says. “You’re hard-pressed to find s****y people when you’re around rugby at the end of the day, and that’s awesome.”


    Bob Socci calls play-by-play for the Patriots Radio Network on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Follow him on Instagram @bob.socci and Twitter @BobSocci