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How Austin Ekeler went from virtually unknown to Chargers star



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He arrived because the underdog — undrafted however hardly unloved by the Chargers — dealing with odds practically as tall as he was, properly, not so tall.

Again then, approaching six years in the past now, Austin Ekeler was 5 foot 8 5/8.

Right this moment, the Chargers listing him at 5-10.

He’s nonetheless 5-8 5/8.

However practically 7,000 yards, 59 touchdowns and numerous celebratory strums of an imaginary guitar later, Ekeler’s top issues little in comparison with the lengthy shadow forged by his coronary heart.

A operating again who may be so troublesome to wrap up that even Ekeler’s drive has a stiff-arm, defensive coordinators NFL-wide are actually compelled to acknowledge a participant each Energy 5 faculty ignored.

“All of the stuff everybody’s seeing him do as we speak,” mentioned Jas Bains, Ekeler’s coach at Division II Western State, “he’s been doing since highschool.”

The Chargers' Austin Ekeler drags Tennessee defenders as he runs for extra yardage.

The Chargers’ Austin Ekeler, identified for his bodily operating, drags Tennessee defenders as he positive factors further yardage.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Instances)

Undersized and underestimated, Ekeler possesses a need too massive to be confined to a huddle, a wish to succeed — no, a have to succeed — that’s spectacular amongst even probably the most obsessed athletes on earth.

One strategy to categorical drive in soccer is by ending performs. Nobody within the NFL has completed extra performs in the long run zone over the past two seasons than Ekeler.

His starvation runs so deep it as soon as confirmed itself in maybe probably the most graphic method potential.

As a rookie, his chiseled body was filled with potential and nerves, so many nerves that after Ekeler stepped into his first huddle of his first apply in his first offseason session with the Chargers, he needed to step again out — so he might throw up.

Suzanne Ekeler performed small-college basketball in Colorado. She had publish strikes and a nickname. They referred to as her “The Animal.”

“Apparently,” Ekeler mentioned of his mom, “she was a maniac on the market.”

Suzanne raised her two sons totally on her personal. Ekeler has by no means met his organic father, a person who was out of his life earlier than Ekeler was born.

Suzanne, Wyett and Austin Ekeler at the younger brother's game at Windsor High School in Colorado.

Suzanne, Wyett and Austin Ekeler on the youthful brother’s recreation at Windsor Excessive College in Colorado.

(Courtesy of Ekeler household)

For some time, there was a stepfather, one who gave Ekeler a bit brother, Wyett, and a major aversion to handbook labor.

A part of Ekeler’s upbringing included engaged on his stepfather’s 80-acre ranch in Briggsdale, Colo. — early and lengthy hours tending to horses, cows and chickens, even within the windy, jarring freeze of winter.

“It was one thing he hated,” Suzanne mentioned. “Each my youngsters hated it. However these chores, they needed to be carried out.”

The stepfather additionally constructed fencing, which meant Austin and Wyett additionally constructed fencing, mile after mile of barbed wire. They’d spend their days pounding posts into the dust and their nights sleeping in a camper.

Ekeler’s father is Black, his stepfather white, as is Suzanne. For some time, after it was simply Suzanne and her two boys, people would surprise in regards to the make-up of the household.

“Individuals would ask me if Austin was adopted,” Suzanne mentioned. “I’d be like, ‘Nope. Completely not. I went by way of 27½ hours in labor for him. That’s my child.’ ”

Austin Ekeler, 6, played soccer as a child in Eaton, Colo., about an hour outside Denver.

Austin Ekeler, 6, performed soccer as a baby in Eaton, Colo., about an hour exterior Denver.

(Courtesy of Ekeler household)

The three of them lived in Colorado’s northern plains, a bit greater than an hour from Denver, in Eaton, a single-story city with a Fb web page and a petting zoo.

Suzanne credited Eaton and her neighbors for serving to elevate Austin, calling the place “an incredible neighborhood that had our backs.” Austin repaid everybody on the town by turning into a star athlete for the Eaton Excessive Reds.

He was quick and powerful and explosive, successful a state championship as an extended jumper and accumulating soccer statistics so video game-ish that, nonetheless as we speak, the numbers appear to develop every time the tales are retold.

Now thought of one of many NFL’s strongest gamers pound for pound, Ekeler first realized about weightlifting whereas at Eaton Excessive and about on-field toughness a bit earlier than that. Within the summers when he was rising up, his mom would coach him in basketball.

Someday, whereas attempting as an example a sure inside transfer to the remainder of the group, “The Animal” whirled and elbowed her first born within the face, blackening Ekeler’s eye.

“If you happen to’re going to return by way of my paint, buddy,” Suzanne recalled, laughing, “you’re going to must really feel one thing.”

It could be years earlier than Ekeler even contemplated the NFL as a chance. He didn’t develop up watching soccer. He watched rodeo, his stepfather concerned in group roping.

When he was about 12, Ekeler tried bull driving — briefly — straddling animals that have been really calves. Yeah, simply calves. Simply indignant, ornery calves.

“My bull-riding profession lasted three bulls,” Ekeler mentioned. “I obtained bucked off each considered one of them earlier than eight seconds. And I used to be terrified the entire time.”

Suzanne Ekeler with son Austin Ekeler at a Nebraska game.

Suzanne Ekeler with son Austin Ekeler at a Nebraska recreation.

(Courtesy of Ekeler household)

He had by no means heard of Western State earlier than the varsity started recruiting him. Positioned in Gunnison, Colo., not removed from Crested Butte Mountain Resort, Western’s soccer area sits at practically 8,000 ft of elevation.

“It’s nowhere close to wherever,” mentioned Tom McConnaughey, a former Chargers scout who was among the many first to find Ekeler. “If you happen to don’t get there earlier than the snow comes, you’re not getting there.”

Just a few small faculties confirmed curiosity in Ekeler and Bains was the one coach who mentioned he might stay at operating again. Others needed him to play within the secondary or signal as an athlete.

The identical day he graduated from Eaton — considered one of 96 in his class — Ekeler packed his 2001 Chevy Silverado and drove up the mountain to Western, the place he was understanding together with his new teammates by dusk.

Similar to in highschool, he was a star from the beginning, a group captain and nearly instantly the very best participant within the Rocky Mountain Athletic Convention.

“He was the man right here,” Bains mentioned. “We performed nearly as good as he performed.”

There are photos of Ekeler everywhere in the faculty, which is now referred to as Western Colorado College. Within the administrative workplaces. The athletic workplaces. Bains’ workplace. Footage and a jersey displayed in order that Ekeler’s time there received’t be forgotten.

They nonetheless discuss his efficiency in opposition to Northern Colorado — 226 yards and two touchdowns — when he scored after being tackled, rolling over on prime of a defender, regaining his ft and sprinting away from defenders who already had hit pause.

“He was dodging individuals simply to take the handoff,” mentioned McConnaughey, who now works for the Jacksonville Jaguars. “It was not a very good group. It was watching him evade the primary man and the second man after which attempting to plow by way of the third and 4 guys. And he often was in a position to do it.”

Earlier than taking up at Western, Bains was an assistant at Chadron (Neb.) State when former Charger Danny Woodhead, one other undersized operating again, was there. McConnaughey recalled Bains describing Ekeler as “Woodhead 2.0.”

As Ekeler was readying for his senior season, Bains defined to him how favorably he in comparison with Woodhead and the way NFL scouts have been starting to indicate curiosity.

Bains couldn’t be fully certain Ekeler would succeed as a professional however knew Ekeler had the right wiring, one thing Bains witnessed usually from his workplace overlooking the varsity’s indoor area home.

“We’d be in right here on a Saturday getting some work carried out,” Bains mentioned. “You’d look down into this facility — it’s simply huge — all of the lights are on and there’s one man in there. In fact, it’s him.”

McConnaughey visited the varsity early in Ekeler’s closing season, arriving on a day when the soccer group didn’t have apply. So Bains summoned Ekeler to his workplace to fulfill the scout.

Western State's Austin Ekeler carries against Northern Colorado on Sept. 5, 2015.

Western State’s Austin Ekeler carries in opposition to Northern Colorado on Sept. 5, 2015.

(Joshua Polson / Related Press)

They sat collectively for 2 hours watching tape. McConnaughey: “I’d by no means seen a child do this” — the session together with every little thing from Ekeler asking questions in regards to the NFL to detailing his post-football plans of working in power administration.

McConnaughey mentioned he left satisfied Ekeler was “a squared-away man” and had these parting phrases: “We gotta get you to camp someway.” Over the following a number of months, McConnaughey referred to as and texted Ekeler usually.

Following his closing faculty season, Ekeler knew his greatest shot at making it to the NFL was to offer himself fully to soccer. So he left Gunnison and moved to Denver to coach at Landow Efficiency with different prospects.

By that time, Ekeler was working with an agent, Cameron Weiss. Someday, Ekeler referred to as with an replace on his coaching. The dialog went one thing like this:

Ekeler: “Have you learnt who Christian McCaffrey is?”

Weiss: “Effectively, yeah.”

Ekeler: “I’m doing in addition to him in just about every little thing right here.”

“My first response was, ‘That is actual?’ ” Weiss mentioned. “So I confirmed it with the trainers at Landow. They informed me, ‘Yeah, Austin is freaky.’ ”

McCaffrey turned the second operating again drafted in 2017, going No. 8 total to Carolina. In all, 245 extra gamers have been picked, together with 25 operating backs. None of them have been named Austin Ekeler.

“All my life, I’ve seen individuals round me tapping out. And I’d be like, ‘No, we’re simply getting began.’ ”

— Austin Ekeler, on perseverance

As a substitute, moments after the draft ended, Weiss took a name from the Chargers, who provided Ekeler $5,000.

Conscious the group may need a spot for a operating again and recalling how a lot curiosity McConnaughey had proven, Ekeler picked the Chargers over one other group that provided him twice the cash.

Requested now about that competing provide, Ekeler mentioned he wasn’t conscious of any of the small print.

“As soon as the Chargers referred to as, that was it,” he mentioned. “I didn’t care what else was on the market.”

He made the Chargers as a rookie, performed himself into an elevated position in his second 12 months and, when Melvin Gordon held out to start out the 2019 season, proved he could possibly be a No. 1 again.

Ekeler’s position expanded steadily but in addition rapidly as he first seized after which squeezed dry his alternative.

Past the top zone, the story was a lot the identical, Ekeler understanding that the fleeting nature of soccer and the celebrity it could actually present requires a two-minute offense off the sphere too.

“All my life, I’ve seen individuals round me tapping out,” he mentioned. “And I’d be like, ‘No, we’re simply getting began.’ ”

As somebody who eats up floor for a dwelling, it appears pure that Ekeler at all times has had an curiosity in actual property. He started investing in rental property early, shopping for his first duplex heading into his second NFL season.

Just a few months earlier, he had obtained his first endorsement deal — $4,000 in credit score he might use to purchase something he needed from Adidas. Fairly quickly, he was signing objects for a memorabilia firm for $1,000.

None of this stopped Ekeler from returning to high school after his rookie season to finish his diploma, a really possible way for a “squared-away man” to acknowledge soccer can’t final ceaselessly.

Into his second season, Ekeler’s social-media presence elevated as he willingly engaged with followers — “I want that interplay,” he mentioned — his reputation rising proper alongside together with his Charger stats, the numbers ultimately making Ekeler as useful in fantasy soccer as the actual factor.

In mid-March 2020, the Chargers signed him to a four-year, $24.5-million contract that assured him $15 million.

The Chargers' Austin Ekeler runs the ball past Titans safety Kevin Byard.

The Chargers’ Austin Ekeler, who has confirmed to be bodily and elusive within the NFL, runs the ball previous Titans security Kevin Byard.

(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Instances)

Just some days later, COVID-19 shut down his budding world, leaving Ekeler considering he’d survive on understanding and enjoying video video games till the restrictions have been eased.

“I performed video video games for 2 weeks and went loopy,” he mentioned. “I used to be like, ‘I can’t do that.’ I simply cannot sit nonetheless. I should be constructing issues.”

So he started sharing his exercises on Twitch. Ekeler began Gridiron Gaming Group, a streaming enterprise that allowed athletes and celebrities to attach with followers whereas enjoying video games corresponding to “League of Legends.”

He stored accumulating actual property and established the Austin Ekeler Basis on the identical two rules upon which he established Austin Ekeler: create alternative and fulfill potential.

“It could be very easy to play soccer and make investments my cash and simply chill and develop a household,” he mentioned. “That sounds horrible to me. And I’m like, ‘Why does that sound horrible?’ It’s as a result of I’ve all these concepts in my head and if I’m not appearing on them I really feel like I’m misplaced.”

A kind of concepts is “Eksperience,” an app designed to attach followers to athletes enthusiastic about increasing and monetizing their streaming presence. Ekeler has been engaged on the challenge for 2 years with hopes of launching it quickly.

“As a substitute of getting his partitions up like most athletes do, Austin has his partitions very a lot down.I can’t inform you one other man I’ve been round who holds himself out in that method.”

— Cameron Weiss, agent representing Austin Ekeler

He employed a supervisor and works with a public relations agency, Sunshine Sachs, and a advertising firm, Rubicon. Ekeler estimated that there are 10 to fifteen individuals “serving to me transfer this engine that I’ve been creating.”

He joined with a associate and now owns 115 rental properties in Colorado and Missouri. He moved his offseason residence to Las Vegas for enterprise functions and put in a streaming studio there to match the one in his Orange County home.

“What actually offers me substance in my life is after I’m constructing issues,” Ekeler mentioned. “There’s no concern about attempting to do an excessive amount of. I’m attempting to make it too huge. I’m trying to find that.”

He’s the star of “Ekeler’s Edge,” a fantasy football-themed present on Yahoo, and “Ekeler Dome,” an interactive competitors sequence he livestreams.

Every week, he offers away two signed jerseys to individuals who have him on their fantasy groups, Ekeler saying the winners himself in movies he data.

“As a substitute of getting his partitions up like most athletes do, Austin has his partitions very a lot down,” mentioned Weiss, the agent. “I can’t inform you one other man I’ve been round who holds himself out in that method.”

Ekeler has carried out endorsement offers with greater than 75 companions, actually consuming (Chipotle), consuming (Anheuser Busch) and sleeping (Sleep Quantity) his method into turning into a promotional pressure.

Brothers Wyett (left) and Austin Ekeler outside the Denver Broncos' Empower Field at Mile High in the 2021 season.

Brothers Wyett (left) and Austin Ekeler exterior the Denver Broncos’ Empower Discipline at Mile Excessive within the 2021 season.

(Courtesy of Ekeler household)

However he does set limits. Ekeler doesn’t drink caffeine, so he has turned away espresso corporations and power drink makers. He doesn’t gamble, so he’s brushed apart these overtures, as properly.

“Greenback indicators aren’t in his eyes in that sense,” mentioned Madison Dodson, Ekeler’s supervisor. “It must be one thing he believes in and actually helps. He’s genuine to his core in every little thing he helps and does.”

Ekeler additionally has labored with Frito-Lay, which could appear an odd pairing given how keen his abs are to indicate themselves. However, get this: he loves Flamin’ Scorching Cheetos. Sparsely. Additionally loves Taco Bell the identical method.

“Taco Bell’s my jam,” Ekeler mentioned. “However I’m not consuming it each flipping day or each week, you realize?”

Ekeler’s social media presence by no means has been higher. His girlfriend, Melanie Wilking, is a dancer and content material creator with 3.4 million followers on TikTok, the place the 2 of them may be discovered dancing to routines she choreographed.

For his or her first date nearly two years in the past, Ekeler shocked her by taking her parasailing. Stated Wilking, “I believe he was extra scared than I used to be.”

Ekeler is co-owner of a group in Fan Managed Soccer and final 12 months, for the primary time, topped seven figures in endorsement earnings.

Nonetheless, away from the sphere, he lacks the flash he routinely shows on Sundays, a truth Dodson underlined by calling Ekeler “only a farm-town man from Colorado.”

After signing his second contract, the one factor Ekeler splurged on was his white Corvette, a experience he coveted going again to a childhood of enjoying the online game “Want For Velocity.”

Throughout Tremendous Bowl week final season, Dodson mentioned she stored noticing all of the diamonds and sparkles adorning different NFL gamers. She turned to Ekeler sooner or later and mentioned, “We gotta get you a necklace.”

He shook his head.

“No,” Ekeler informed her, “I gotta get myself extra actual property.”

Austin, Suzanne and Wyett Ekeler outside their mom's home in Colorado.

Austin, Suzanne and Wyett Ekeler exterior their residence in Colorado.

(Courtesy of Ekeler household.)

Suzanne hardly ever misses both of her sons’ video games, Wyett now a security at Wyoming, the place he will get round city in his huge brother’s outdated Chevy Silverado.

She used to sit down in a decrease, nook part of SoFi Stadium, together with the households of different Chargers. However then, one recreation, she missed her boy scoring a landing within the reverse finish zone. The subsequent week, Suzanne moved up a stage.

Now, in Part 212, she’s the one carrying the No. 30 “MAMA EK” jersey within the entrance row, unfurling the Ekeler flag and ready to trade figuring out waves together with her son after he trots onto the sphere for warmups.

“After I sit again and watch him now, I’m simply so grateful that the world will get to see what I’ve seen for therefore lengthy.” Suzanne mentioned. “I’m so darn pleased with him.”

Plucked from the highest of a Colorado mountain, greater than a mile within the air and with aspirations even loftier, Ekeler continues to chase all that’s potential — on the sphere and off — and possibly some issues that aren’t. However, then, why not?

“I don’t wish to crash and burn and have every little thing crumble down,” he mentioned. “I don’t need issues to be catastrophic. However I’m attempting to check myself and push as exhausting as I can. What’s the worst factor that might occur? I might be taught.”

Yeah, he got here down from a peak, Austin Ekeler did, absolutely intent on constructing a mountain of his personal.