Austin Ekeler sat down at a meeting desk, ahead of the new house and the swollen lender account, just before the on the internet exercise routines and the videoconference playbook classes, right before he swapped his supporting part for a feature one and his No. 30 Chargers jersey for an N95 mask. It was early 2020, right before his globe altered, and before the world improved. He was assembly with normal supervisor Tom Telesco, pondering the exact same notion that has dominated the ideal and strangest 12 months of his everyday living.
How did I finish up listed here?
“We really want you,” Telesco told him. The GM observed Ekeler as a crucial piece to the franchise’s quick rebuild after a 5–11 season, introducing a further layer of resonance to 1 of the most improbable stories in modern NFL record. The a single about the undersized operating back again, forgotten by just about every Division I college software, then dismissed even by close by D-II educational institutions, who wasn’t invited to the combine who crashed yet another school’s pro working day who went undrafted when 27 backs—27!—heard their names named. And the 1 about the child who under no circumstances knew his biological father and wished he experienced under no circumstances met his stepdad.
That person in that meeting had hardly ever prepared on playing in the NFL. He only hoped—he understood the odds. Even when Ekeler created the Chargers as a distinctive teamer in 2017, he puzzled just how extended he may adhere in truth, he went back to faculty right after that to start with season. He realized he desired to end his diploma in electrical power management, since he essential some thing to tumble again on. He figured he could latch on with Noble Strength, the hydrocarbon exploration firm that he had interned with.
In its place, he carved out a section-time job on offense in his second year and cemented his worth past calendar year when starting back again Melvin Gordon held out. Ekeler’s breakout in ’19 unfolded like the create toward the climax in an underdog athletics film, featuring a scrappy protagonist confronted with insurmountable odds, in lookup of the proper crack, bolstered by his support system and then … 1,550 yards from scrimmage, ninth-most in the NFL and fourth-most in the AFC 92 receptions pretty much one,000 getting yards 11 touchdowns. The actual-everyday living script landed him in that workplace, throughout from his basic manager, who would signal Ekeler, now 25, to a four-year deal really worth $24.five million, with $15 million certain. The significant scene, naturally, was someplace on the close to horizon.
Ekeler drove to Las Vegas for a celebratory steak meal with his agent, Cameron Weiss. He named his mother, Suzanne, who screamed in celebration. He listened to his girlfriend, Taylor Frick, say his life “felt like a fairy tale.”
Then arrived COVID-19, the respiratory virus that halted momentum and plans and dreams—like people held by the functioning back who had lived out a few quarters of a movie, who experienced last but not least arrived, in opposition to each and every sensible expectation, to the greatest component. The fitness center he worked out at shut. So did the public spaces at his condominium advanced. So did the Chargers’ facility. Whole cease, all about. Ekeler questioned how he may well capitalize on his instant and complete the fairy tale, when confronting an unforeseen villain: a world pandemic.
The magical tale of the diminutive hero starts in Eaton, Colo., a compact town of roughly 4,500 people found some 70 miles northeast of Denver, in the vicinity of Greeley. Ekeler grew up a small travel from the town restrictions, moving there quickly right after his biological father went to jail, a topic that he prefers not to discuss. When his mother remarried, and they moved into her new husband’s 80-acre ranch.
The idyllic environment served as a stark distinction to the Ekelers’ new, harsh lifetime. The boys became full-time employees, far more or significantly less, a pair of young ranch-palms. They tended to horses, cows, chickens and goats. He and his half-brother, Wyett, would be awoken at six a.m. for backbreaking chores, even in the winter, when they had been despatched out to break apart ice in water tanks. In the summers, they served install and repair the fences all around the house, the posts stretching for mile following mile. Asked if he loved one particular animal additional than any other, he suggests, “I hated all of them since I hated taking care of them.” He pauses. “Well, there was a goat,” he suggests. “She just type of ran about when we did the feedings. We named her Betsy.” (In the Disney model of the film, she would develop into his animal sidekick.)
For the duration of those people several years, Ekeler acquired what he required to survive. His push, for one particular. His attitude, for an additional. And his mother, a math teacher who played basketball in university and took on additional positions like as a waitress just about every summer season to support the loved ones. She shielded Austin, pointing him to an additional way, ferrying him to procedures and video games in soccer and observe and soccer. On a person car trip when he was 9, she told her Austin he would be unique, do wonderful points. He seemed again at her and laughed with a gentle annoyance, providing her a person of individuals mom?!?! appears to be like.
More than time, he begun to believe, in the two himself and what may be feasible, even when other individuals skipped what fueled him. He desperately wanted to win, at something extra urgently, he wanted to escape. He did not even really like soccer, not the way that his obsessed teammates said they beloved it. Somewhat, he observed the activity as his most effective probability to both of those triumph and leave, the beliefs intertwined—two birds, a person sport. But even when he scored 42 touchdowns and amassed just about 2,400 rushing yards in his senior period, Division I educational institutions handed devoid of so considerably as responding. Division IIs that did get back to him questioned him to switch positions. Each method, that is, but just one he’d never heard of: Western State Colorado University.
Ekeler still left for faculty on the similar day he been given his significant college diploma, owning secured a summer time gig as a rafting guideline on the Taylor River. He drove his overstuffed pickup to Gunnison without so significantly as a look more than his shoulder, rushing towards his new daily life in the small college town nestled substantial in the mountains with a football group several years eliminated from its heyday and 8 other running backs crowded on to the depth chart.
However, he begun the to start with sport of his freshman year, a nod to the effect he’d manufactured that summer time. Teammates most normally located him in the fat area, squatting far more than offensive linemen, 10 large plates bending the barbell that rested atop his shoulders. Ekeler befriended a defensive lineman named Jared Martin, and they spent their restricted no cost time out on the river, casting for fish. The operating back again usually caught additional. He had to, so he could very good-naturedly taunt Martin on the travel again to campus. “That was Austin,” Martin says. “Pretty significantly unstoppable from the working day he arrived. Scored each touchdown. Hooked the most fish.” (The Herculean character experienced started to take condition.)
Ekeler starred but not in the very same way as most school football heroes. He in no way played on nationwide television or caught a pass from a five-star quarterback. He carried out at household game titles in the Mountaineer Bowl, with its sweeping scenic sights and modest steel bleachers, usually in entrance of a several hundred fans. “It form of in good shape me,” he states, which means he didn’t will need any excess drive. In 4 seasons, Ekeler broke each individual conceivable hurrying report at Western, finishing with just about 6,000 hurrying yards and scoring 63 situations. In 2016, the software managed 7 wins for the 1st time in pretty much two a long time, at the rear of the captain who done air guitar solos soon after touchdowns. “He was so dominant, but still, you speculate, mainly because it’s D-II,” his mom claims. “We did not know if there would be a upcoming step. We did not even know how to go about the system.”
As Ekeler’s senior time unfolded, NFL scouts started to drop by exercise, which appeared to point out a genuine fascination in the small again (5′ 10″, about 200 lbs . by then) from the small school. The Packers appeared mildly intrigued, as did just one particular staff member of the Chargers, Tom McConnaughey, who instructed Ekeler he must at the very least be able to earn a minicamp tryout.
Finally, Ekeler discovered out he could test for groups but only immediately after the University of Colorado held its professional working day, even however some scouts would currently have remaining. That was all the probability he necessary. The personnel people that lingered, half-focused, seemed up from their notebooks when he clocked a four.43 40-lawn dash and logged a 40.5-inch vertical leap. At that year’s NFL draft combine, only long term first-rounder Christian McCaffrey had posted comparable specs. Ekeler’s mother watched that pro day from the industry. Suzanne was struck significantly less by her son’s achievements and a lot more by the fact that the broader earth experienced started off to consider discover, and it would keep on to, all the way up to the moment he signed that agreement.
What Has It Been Like Navigating an NFL Offseason During a World Pandemic?
Prior to the lockdowns begun, Ekeler enjoyed a blissful existence. He lived close to the seaside, exactly where he’d satisfy teammates for video games of Spikeball. He could purchase anything he desired. He was healthier, delighted. His brother landed a football scholarship at Wyoming. His mom had moved to California. He had began to look for a home of his very own, with his girlfriend, yet another phase toward constructing their personal family members. He joked sometimes about the mad sprint of crowds speeding to scoop up bathroom paper, or the bins of hand sanitizer traveling off the shelves. But his tenor didn’t modify until athletics shut down and he became a product of social distancing. He still left his household only to go to the park nearby for exercise sessions or decide on up foodstuff, reasoning that he could deploy his increasing platform by setting an instance for his additional vulnerable neighbors.
To hold alive the tale, Ekeler started to get creative with his workouts, in particular just after he observed Steelers again James Conner throwing logs in the woods. Ekeler did thrust-ups with Frick sitting down on his again. He knocked out one-arm pull-ups whilst looking at a guide.
Ekeler experienced no speak to at that stage with his teammates, whilst the Chargers commenced their roster overhaul. Telesco traded offensive deal with Russell Okung to Carolina. Gordon signed with Denver, clearing the path for Ekeler to turn out to be the team’s main again. And the group declined a prospect to re-sign quarterback Philip Rivers, marking a few offensive starters, a few leaders, absent in roughly 3 months, along with the NBA and NHL seasons. Ekeler wondered no matter if the Chargers may well indication Tom Brady, right until he went to Tampa in its place. But he did not even hash out the rumors with his teammates. They had all retreated into their possess bubbles. “We’ve been so distant,” he claims. “There’s unquestionably a disconnect all over the entire NFL suitable now.” (In the film, this would mark the shock setback right before the championship.)
As the self-isolation dragged on, Ekeler started off to channel his boredom into productiveness, earning the most of his time like he had at Western, formulating options. He streamed total-body cardio routines with his girlfriend about Twitch and formed a movie recreation streaming company that would enable professional soccer gamers to connect with lovers even though they play League of Legends, FIFA or Madden. He referred to as the firm Gridiron Gaming Team, registering it as an LLC with his agent and a pal. Ekeler was always that resourceful. He experienced to be he had viewed as commencing a fishing organization with Martin right before the football factor worked out. “I’m basically not bored at all,” he suggests. “But I pass up soccer.”
News remained his only link to the sport. He cheered when he saw the Panthers ink McCaffrey to the premier running back contract in NFL background, with $30 million guaranteed, one particular season immediately after McCaffrey logged 403 touches. “I really do not actually believe my system could handle that considerably quantity,” Ekeler claims of McCaffrey’s workload.
As the draft approached, Ekeler hoped the Chargers would pick out a running again, since only he and Justin Jackson remained on the roster at that situation. He continue to hadn’t had any make contact with with his teammates, his new starting off quarterback or his new offensive coordinator. His times ended up filled, but not by the action he most desired. He liked the new collective bargaining arrangement, simply because it elevated the fork out of younger and a lot less founded players, men like him just before this spring. He worried about the excess recreation that would be included to the common time, specially for running backs who would endure a further afternoon of auto-crash-like collisions. And he questioned about the little-university stars who were making ready for the draft the way that he had a few years previously, and what might have transpired experienced the Chargers’ scout not frequented his campus, or had he not been equipped to sneak into that pro day. Would he be working in electricity administration as a substitute?
What Are the Players’ Views on the NFL’s New CBA?
Ekeler commenced to inch back again toward his fairy tale in Might, at least practically. Every little thing was unique. He fulfilled on the web with Jackson and his place coach four mornings a 7 days, from eight a.m. to 10 a.m. The whole offense also hopped on greater videoconferences with Shane Steichen, an assistant who turned previous fall’s interim coordinator gig into a full-time write-up.
Like most groups coming off a getting rid of marketing campaign, the Chargers ongoing a substantial overhaul. L.A. required new leaders. Steichen installed a new program, with unique terminology and a lot more emphasis on quarterback mobility, following the group took Justin Herbert from Oregon with the sixth decide, which means the Chargers would transition from their statuesque legend in Rivers to a far more cell alternative (Herbert or veteran Tyrod Taylor). Herbert instantly sent Ekeler a text information, hoping they could coordinate to great-tune some routes ahead of education camp begins, every time that may be.
They experienced also bolstered the working backs home, for each Ekeler’s want, getting UCLA’s Joshua Kelley in the fourth spherical. As a bigger downhill runner, Kelley would seem to complement the Chargers’ latest backs very well, and his assortment, together with a handful of the spring’s undrafted no cost agents, helped fill out the sparsely populated videoconference area. Ekeler experienced previously termed Kelley to help him familiarize with both equally the business and the offense, striving to ease his most significant coronavirus-connected issue: that teams with new techniques or new quarterbacks will enter the 2020 period at a drawback, since of the absence of time that any team can invest jointly. The Chargers are new in both of those sites, new everywhere you go, and although Ekeler is optimistic about their revamped roster—“We can contend for the division”—he’s also aware that several pundits disagree, position his staff in the bottom 50 % of lots of projections for next year. “Story of my everyday living,” he suggests.
Certainly, he signed the contract, became a multimillionaire and started out two new corporations. But he nevertheless ate his celebratory dinners at Purple Robin, however saved most of every NFL look at, however approached each and every day like a ranch hand or the ninth jogging again at a Division II faculty.
Ekeler stays the very same competitor who threw up ahead of his initially professional observe mainly because he so desperately desired to succeed. The very same back again who cornered coach Anthony Lynn soon after rookie minicamp and then—after Lynn questioned Ekeler, Who are you?—followed his suggestions to make the roster by means of move protection, ball safety and special groups. Who taped up a damaged left hand his rookie year and by no means skipped a sport. Who was waylaid on a return against the Bengals in Calendar year 2, shedding experience down the remaining facet of his overall body, however missed only two months.
He ongoing to put his story and the pandemic in the suitable context: He had it fantastic as opposed with all the people today who had been unwell, or labored in hospitals, or dropped their beloved types. His desire had simply just been delayed, and the new problems only created for a much better story.
Which is the point about Austin Ekeler this spring. His environment improved. Then the environment modified. The guy himself? Every thing altered and almost nothing did. Now, about that ending …