If you play fantasy football or are a fan of the Los Angeles Chargers, you are familiar with the works of 5-foot-10 running back Austin Ekeler. If you are neither of those things, you may not know the pint-sized pigskin player or his backstory — but you should.
In brief, the 200-pound rusher made it to the NFL in 2017 as an undrafted free agent after being ignored by Division I colleges and attending D-II school Western State Colorado University, the only football program that didn’t ask him to switch positions. Ekeler, who had drawn some interest from pro scouts and left school early because of it, was able to latch on with the Chargers as a special teamer despite not being invited to the NFL Combine or hearing his name called during a draft that saw 27 other running backs get picked (including 5’6 Tarik Cohen, who went in the fourth round to the Bears).
Overlooked by colleges and ignored by the majority of the NFL, Ekeler — who posted Christian McCaffrey-like specs, including a 4.43 40-yard dash and 40.5-inch vertical leap, during his sparsely attended pro day — says he never got down on himself or his prospects of playing pro football.
“The reason I never really gave up or got discouraged about where I was at the time is that I always lived in the moment and I didn’t get too far ahead of myself looking into the future,” Ekeler tells InsideHook. “I was never thinking, ‘Man, I need to do these steps to get to this opportunity.’ It was always kind of just like, ‘Let me see where I am and then focus on succeeding in this moment.’ If you focus on what you’re doing at the time, you don’t really get discouraged. I wasn’t focused on what was to come. What was to come would have been a result of what I did at the time.”
One thing that helped Ekeler get his NFL shot that he continues today is being an absolute maniac in the gym. To wit:
Ekeler, who is very active on Twitch and will be answering questions from fans there throughout the season, has just six-percent body fat and can make his weight fluctuate with the addition or subtraction of a single egg to his diet. In essence, he has turned his body into a fine-tuned machine.
“Part of my lifestyle is working out. That’s kind of like my meditation, so to speak,” he says. “It’s a big part of football, so it comes easy for me. It’s just become my passion, and it’s also my job, and so when those two can mesh together, good things happen. I would say my workout regimen means almost everything to my success. It represents my commitment and consistency in things that I love to do. When it comes to my workouts and my diet and then playing football at the same time, everything’s very precise.”
In addition to his workouts, Ekeler cites the consistency he mentions above as a big reason for his NFL success.
“I think my consistency got me on the team and has kept me on the team and given me progress,” he says. “Even in my rookie year, I was still consistently making plays, I just had a little bit lower volume. So it wasn’t as prevalent in the game, just because we had other players out in front of me and I hadn’t established myself. My consistency over the years has just given me an opportunity to grow and now gotten me a predominant role in the offense. Now it’s just a matter of proving I’m still consistent and doing it again this year.”
He will certainly have his chance: with last year’s projected starting running back, Melvin Gordon, now in Denver, Ekeler is clearly San Diego’s top dog in the backfield.
“In my opinion, I was never the backup. On paper, Melvin Gordon was ahead of me at the running-back position, but when it came to game day or practice, I’m starting in the role that I play,” he says. “I don’t play Melvin’s spot. I play Austin Ekeler’s spot. My approach has changed not at all. It’s always just build, build, build and be even more efficient and effective in my role than I was last year. My goal is to make more of an impact on offense and make plays not just in the backfield, but also out in space as a pass-catcher and all over the field.”
What Ekeler does in 2020 will be under even more scrutiny that it would otherwise be, since he — along with the rest of his teammates and peers on the Los Angeles Chargers — will be featured on this season of Hard Knocks, which debuts on HBO tonight.
Ekeler, who will likely be one of the main stories, is ready for some time in the spotlight.
“They definitely talked to me about coming in to get some content at my house,” he says. “Seeing what’s going on and the preparation that I’ve been going through … It’s a way for people to see you outside of football or even during football and how you’re preparing. There’s a [coronavirus] protocol they have to go through, too, as far as making sure they’re all clean and everything like that. I live by myself, so it’s just me.. I was 100 percent willing to take them on.”
Though Ekeler is willing to risk both the Hard Knocks crew in his home and playing pro football in 2020, he says he understands why some NFL players have opted out of the season.
“It comes down to each individual person’s situation,” he says. “I’m a single guy that lives in California by myself. I’ve never had any health issues and don’t live around people or see people that do at the moment. So, for me, I’m very low risk as far as anything severe happening as opposed to somebody that might have one of those pre-existing conditions or a pregnant wife or things of that matter. It comes down to each situation.”
As for the NFL season itself, Ekeler believes there will be one, pandemic or not.
“I don’t want to get too far ahead. I stay in the moment. So right now, I’m really just trying to get back on the field and see how that goes. We have to take it step-by-step. I feel like it just really comes down to the leagues and teams putting in the time and effort to actually keep themselves separated from everybody. I don’t know what’s normal anymore, but at this point I’m willing to try anything to get back in the building. We have to test every day and wear a mask anywhere we go, so it’s not normal, but I feel like not normal is the new normal. It’s COVID season, so we just have to make it through this. There’s at least an effort to get back and progress with some type of football activity, which is what I’m really excited about. As far as right now, I feel like it’s going to happen.”