clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Austin Ekeler’s Beautiful Fantasy

The Chargers running back faced a long road from unheralded small-school player to NFL superstar. But he’s just getting started.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The huddle broke with a very specific play call.

32 duo alert, no más.

It was Week 5, and the Chargers trailed the Browns 42-41 with 1:38 left and the ball at Cleveland’s 3-yard line. Running back Austin Ekeler had converted a third-and-2 with an 8-yard run the play before, staying inbounds to force the Browns to exhaust their last timeout. Now Ekeler was going to take a handoff and stop short of the goal line—no más—to waste more clock before Los Angeles attempted a game-winning field goal. But at the line of scrimmage, Cleveland safety John Johnson III began pushing Ekeler forward. Some other Browns defenders then dragged him in for the go-ahead score. The Chargers had taken the lead, but confusion lingered in SoFi Stadium.

“We decided in that moment, ‘Look, we’re not trying to score,’” Ekeler explained after the game. “I was trying to waste as much time as I could by not going in, until they got fed up and then actually dragged me into the end zone, which I was not expecting, obviously, or I would have went down immediately.”

The Chargers held on to win, 47-42, with Ekeler’s accidental touchdown, his third of the game, serving as the decisive score. One of Ekeler’s fantasy teams picked up a win as a result, too.

“It’s funny,” Ekeler tells me a few days later, “because my offensive coordinator, Joe Lombardi, he’s like, ‘I should’ve known I shouldn’t have gave the ball to the front-runner [of] fantasy football.’” Ekeler smiles, then almost instantly straightens his face, as if the 26-year-old has been caught doing something wrong. “It definitely helped out my fantasy team, man,” he says. “But no, I need to get down, for sure.”

Ekeler plays in three fantasy football leagues—not with close friends or family, but with fans. Ekeler drafted himself in just one league, but “that’s the one that’s doing the best,” he says. “The other ones I don’t have me on are struggling right now.”

He became interested in fantasy last year. When the COVID-19 pandemic started, Ekeler streamed himself playing video games on Twitch as a way to pass time and connect with others, chatting with fans about life and mental health, and answering questions. He noticed people kept thanking him for his contributions to their fantasy squads.

Intrigued by all the references, Ekeler decided to learn more about fantasy football and was surprised by the massive fantasy football community and “a multibillion-dollar industry based off of us just playing football.” He competed in one league with some fans last season. The people Ekeler competes with, he says, are “way better than me, but that’s not the point. They don’t really care. They think it’s awesome that they’re playing with me who’s on their team, for some of them, or just having a player who’s actively playing.”

The fifth-year pro insists that it didn’t matter that he’s the focal tailback in Lombardi’s offense—a scheme inspired by the one Lombardi used in New Orleans to help Alvin Kamara, a dual-threat running back like Ekeler, accrue 1,500 total yards from scrimmage in three of his first four seasons. Even if Ekeler wasn’t a top-five fantasy running back, he would’ve drafted himself anyway.

“That’s the only thing I can ever control in fantasy is myself,” Ekeler says. “I have direct control over something no one else does. Very unique circumstances where I can directly control my results.”

Consider Week 8, when Ekeler was listed as questionable after missing two practices ahead of Los Angeles’s matchup with New England. He posted a screenshot on Instagram showing that he was starting himself in his fantasy lineup the night before, ending speculation over his status and foreshadowing 64 rushing yards, one rushing score, and six catches for 60 receiving yards.

Ekeler’s had a mostly positive experience with fantasy, even though the fantasy community can get particularly nasty when players don’t perform well or weirdly emotional when players express that they don’t care about fantasy. Ekeler’s mentions occasionally feature people calling him out, which he takes in stride. “You care enough about me to score you points that you’re reaching out to me to tell me to stop sucking,” he says. “I’m just like, ‘Yeah, you’re right! I need to score more fantasy points. If I score more fantasy points, that means I’m playing better, so you are right!’” Mostly, though, fans reply to his tweets with gratitude, which he credits to his accessibility and candor during his Twitch streams. He broke a months-long hiatus Monday evening with a 45-minute chat alongside his girlfriend, sharing when he watches film (late in the week), which video game he’s currently playing (New World), and what it takes to make the NFL as an undrafted free agent (overcoming the mental barrier, he says, in addition to being a quick study).

“People were really intrigued about my [life] story,” Ekeler says. “People were really listening and kept continuing to ask me questions, and that’s what my Twitch streams turned into. It’d just be a Q&A with me just talking about my life, motivation, and how hard I go into my things and my team, and just what I’ve done to build up to this.”

His fantasy dabblings and willingness to interact with Twitch viewers intrigued someone at Yahoo enough to ask whether Ekeler would be interested in cohosting a fantasy football talk show, and “Ekeler’s Edge” was born. He records weekly with fantasy analyst Liz Loza, assessing matchups—in a recent episode, Ekeler said Ryan Tannehill should be able to keep the Titans offense afloat while Derrick Henry is out—and interviews guests, such as Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert, Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis, and Psych star James Roday Rodriguez.

It’s all part of Ekeler’s unexpected journey from undrafted rookie to one of the NFL’s most explosive running backs. “The moral of my story is not that I made it to the NFL,” Ekeler says. “It’s that I became the best version of myself in the opportunity, right? And that led to a different opportunity, and now I have a new opportunity to become the best version of myself with this opportunity, and it led to another opportunity. So that’s what I preach to people as far as when they ask questions. ‘Hey, this is how I did it. ... I went all in on my passions.’”

Carolina Panthers v Los Angeles Chargers
Ekeler breaks Rasul Douglas’s tackle during a game against the Panthers in 2020
Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Ekeler’s life story never ceases to amaze him no matter how many times he tells it. “He was like that big fish in a small pond,” says Suzanne, Austin’s mother, over the phone from Colorado one late October morning. “When he told me he had that opportunity to try to be a big fish in a big pond, I was behind him 100 percent.”

Suzanne has been surprised to see her son’s growing off-field ventures. He’s always been a gamer, but she says he wasn’t much of a talker.

“Shockingly enough, Austin was very quiet,” Suzanne says. The pace and energy of her voice makes it explicitly clear where her son inherits the vibrant disposition he holds now. “A lot of times it was his actions that spoke louder than any words that ever came out of his mouth. He would stay overnight at a friend’s house, and I would go to pick him up and the parents would be like, ‘Oh my gosh, he actually talks!’”

Ekeler was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, but grew up in Briggsdale, Colorado, a tiny town about 75 miles north of Denver with a population of less than 1,000. About 25 miles west is Eaton, Colorado, population 5,800, where Ekeler played high school football. Suzanne and Ekeler’s biological father split after he was born. She later married a rancher, and the pair had Ekeler’s brother, Wyett, who’s now a redshirt freshman defensive back at Wyoming. Ekeler once told Bleacher Report that his stepdad grew up in an abusive household and “brought that upon me.” He made Ekeler complete grueling tasks, such as tending to farm animals and installing wire fencing for miles.

“I was raised in a situation where, man, it was just work, work and do not complain, or get your ass beat,” Ekeler says. “That was my situation. And it was just like ... work. Just work. Just work. And it just taught me that I don’t ever want to be in a situation like this where I hate what I’m doing.”

That relentless mentality inspired Ekeler to take his education seriously enough to get out of his hometown. And while Ekeler was a quiet kid, he channeled a different energy on the football field. Suzanne—who played college basketball at Division II University of Colorado–Colorado Springs—said that she knew when Austin was 9 years old, he was destined to do something meaningful.

“I remember we were going down the dip to our house,” Suzanne recalls, “and I said, ‘Austin, I’m just gonna say this right now. When you hit it big, people are gonna come out of the woodwork at ya, and you’re gonna have to be prepared for that.’ And he kind of looked at me like I didn’t know what I was talking about.”

In three varsity seasons at Eaton High School (which this year has a student population of 556), Ekeler rushed for 4,393 yards and 70 touchdowns on 9.5 yards per carry. As a senior he earned all-conference and all-state honors in both football and track, yet he didn’t receive any Division I offers. Suzanne recalls one FCS program recruiting him to play cornerback, but “he was adamant that he wanted to play running back,” she says, “and that’s what he was gonna do.”

Ekeler didn’t spend any more time in Eaton than he needed to. He packed his car the night before graduating and drove to Gunnison, Colorado, where he attended Division II Western Colorado (previously called Western State Colorado). He immediately earned significant playing time as a true freshman, eclipsing 1,000 rushing yards. As a sophomore, he set school records for rushing yards, all-purpose yards, and all-purpose yards per game. As a junior he broke Western Colorado’s career rushing yards record and led Division II in all-purpose yards per game.

Until his junior year, Ekeler didn’t think he had a chance of making the NFL. Since 2017, Division II players have accounted for 3.8 percent of NFL teams’ season-opening 53-man rosters. Ekeler, a two-time, All-Academic first-teamer, figured he’d pick up his business degree, work in the oil and gas industry, take up real estate, and then start his own company. One of his coaches, though, suggested he could have a shot at making an NFL camp.

“I was like, ‘You know what? I’m gonna put literally every ounce of energy into learning about this game and actually going and putting myself in a position where I can show that I can play in this league,’” Ekeler said. “I went all in.”

He dropped out of school with one semester left before graduating to focus explicitly on training for the 2017 NFL draft. Suzanne admits she couldn’t help groaning at the fact her son had just one more semester remaining, but offered her full support anyway.

“We just needed at that time for a team—any team—to give him an opportunity to do what it is that he loved to do,” she says.

Los Angeles Chargers v Jacksonville Jaguars
Ekeler scores a touchdown in Jacksonville during his rookie season in 2017
Photo by Logan Bowles/Getty Images

A scout tipped Cameron Weiss, president of Dynamic Sports Group, on a promising Division II tailback. “When I watched his film for the first time,” Weiss recalls, “I was like, ‘Oh. You know? I think that plays.’” Ekeler’s explosive athleticism popped on tape, but they needed to get him in front of NFL decision-makers.

Only seven Division II prospects earned invites to the 2017 combine. Ekeler wasn’t one of them. Big pond. In March that year, after the University of Colorado held its pro day, Ekeler and a handful of other small-school prospects worked out. Weiss remembers begging scouts to stay to watch. Ekeler made it worth their time, posting numbers that would have placed him in the top five of each category among the 33 running backs who participated in the 2017 combine, a group including Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, Dalvin Cook, Aaron Jones, Kareem Hunt, Leonard Fournette, and Chris Carson.

Ekeler’s Pro Day Numbers

Event Pro Day Measurement Rank Among RBs at 2017 Combine Measurement Percentile Among All-Time Combine RBs
Event Pro Day Measurement Rank Among RBs at 2017 Combine Measurement Percentile Among All-Time Combine RBs
Height 5’8 ⅝” 28th 9th
Weight 198 lbs 26th 13th
40-Yard Dash 4.48, 4.49 4th-tied 81st
Broad Jump 10’8” (128”) 3rd 94th
Short Shuttle 4.28 5th-tied 46th
Three-Cone 6.92 4th 72nd
Vertical Jump 40.5” 1st 95th
Data via NFL.com, Mockdraftable

Watching the draft at home, Suzanne remembers, was “pretty boring.” Ekeler and his family waited patiently for the final pick. Unsurprisingly, Ekeler went undrafted, despite 27 running backs being chosen. Within five minutes of the draft concluding, Ekeler received a call from the Chargers. One of Weiss’s childhood friends was helping the team sign running backs that year. They struck a deal.

“I’m not gonna lie,” Suzanne says, “it took me a second to understand what was happening. I was kind of walking around the house. And then the next thing I know, it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, here comes the volume.’ I was screaming. Tears and everything.”

Ekeler still faced an uphill climb to make the roster. Five players—all with NFL experience—were ahead of him on the depth chart: Melvin Gordon (a 2015 first-round pick), Branden Oliver, Andre Williams, Kenjon Barner, and Kenneth Farrow. But Ekeler shined on special teams and made the most of his backfield reps by showing off versatility as a ball carrier and a receiver.

Ekeler solidified his roster spot in the Chargers’ final preseason game against the 49ers, when he recorded eight carries for 50 yards and three catches for 58 yards, while collecting two total tackles (the first at gunner on a punt). The Chargers kept Gordon, Oliver, and Ekeler, utilizing the rookie as its starting gunner on punt coverage during the season. One Chargers scout told Weiss that Ekeler made the team “because this dude was flying down the field like his hair was on fire” on special teams.

“It wasn’t flashy or anything,” Ekeler says. “But it was getting the job done. That was to make sure I was consistent in just absolutely putting everything out there, as far as my athletic capability.”

Quickly, Ekeler rose up the Chargers depth chart. As a rookie, he established himself as the team’s no. 2 tailback. And after Ekeler excelled as a starter during Gordon’s four-game holdout in 2019, it became clear the former first-round pick was expendable. Gordon left in free agency the following offseason, and Ekeler hasn’t relinquished primary duties since.

Indianapolis Colts v Los Angeles Chargers
Ekeler hugs his mother, Suzanne, after a win over the Colts in 2019
Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Now solidified in his role, Ekeler is stretching out in other areas of life. Where he finds the most fulfillment is by investing in the lives of others. It starts with family.

In March 2020, Ekeler signed a four-year, $24.5 million extension with the Chargers, including $15 million in total guarantees (the eighth most guaranteed among running backs, according to Spotrac), with more than $13 million of that due at signing. For Christmas that year, he handed his mother a block of cash worth $40,000, so she could buy a new car. She upgraded from a 1998 Dodge Ram to a 2019 Ford F-150. “It took me three months to spend that money because … it was a lot of money,” Suzanne says, still amazed at the gesture. “I didn’t know what to do with it. It was probably about 20 minutes of tears when he gave it to me.”

Ekeler earned his payday through preparation, though he explains that it can take time to adjust to life as an NFL player and develop a routine. He became known as a weight room savant, earning a reputation as one of the league’s pound-for-pound strongest players. Through Ekeler’s first four NFL seasons, he notched 1,500 rushing yards and 1,500 receiving yards on 473 touches, the third-quickest pace by a tailback since the merger. Through Week 9, he’s one of three tailbacks currently on pace to record 1,000 rushing yards and 600 receiving yards through Week 9.

“For me, the opportunity right now for me has grown to this,” Ekeler says. “But it’s because of my routine. It’s been my routine to take advantage of what’s at hand, what’s right here in front of me.”

Ekeler was voted one of the Chargers’ four offensive captains this season. First-year head coach Brandon Staley says that it’s Ekeler’s high expectations for daily work ethic and standard performance that makes him such a vital presence to his locker room. “He’s a tough, tough, tough player,” Staley says. “When you start something as a football coach, he’s the type of player that you want to join up with.”

When asked how much it means for him to be in the midst of an encouraging career while already setting up his family, Ekeler clicks through his teeth. For the first time during our interview, his mind slows down a bit. “I don’t even know,” he finally says, “because I feel like I haven’t even got to that point yet.”

It might raise eyebrows for someone who’s banked millions to say that, but there’s a reason for Ekeler’s mindset. He calls back to a seminar he once attended, when a speaker asked for everyone to write down a financial figure that would make them feel comfortable for life. Ekeler initially scribbled $100 million. Two minutes passed. He scratched it out.

“I was like, if I got $100 million, that’s not enough,” Ekeler says. “So I literally wrote, ‘It’s never enough.’ Because there’s never enough.”

Ekeler’s intent isn’t to hoard money—it’s to redistribute it to needy communities and help people in situations where they haven’t had the proper resources or education to advance their lives. In April, he launched his foundation, whose mission statement is “to help create opportunities for people to fulfill their passions and ultimately their lives.” Ekeler lights up discussing its purpose.

“There’s people that are in a situation where maybe both of their caretakers aren’t educated and both of their caretakers are making poor decisions. And so how do you help someone like that?” Ekeler says. “That’s what the foundation focuses on: Going to these places that don’t have as many resources, and just giving people something to do, whether that’s a football [field], a basketball court, whether it’s computers. This is your stuff. Just use it. Go to this club, get away from your situation, come to this place. Whether it’s a school, whether it’s at your Boys and Girls Club, just go do stuff.

“When you do stuff you learn things. You learn about yourself, you learn about other people, you learn social skills, you learn mental toughness, you learn how to work. That’s what the foundation is about: Help people go do things. Because when people can go do things, they can learn and they can better themselves.”

Part of Ekeler’s off-field goal is to help athletes find long-term financial stability for athletes once their careers are over. Ekeler ponders out loud how more athletes don’t realize the platform they have, and how it can set them up for life after their playing career. It’s fine to not fully capitalize, he says, if you’re a superstar. But most athletes aren’t. He attributes the shortage of awareness to “a lack of education of how the system actually works.” For years, researchers have urged that the NFL improve its financial literacy programs, while some players—active and retired—have taken matters into their own hands, attempting to educate teammates, fellow pros, and their communities.

In January, Ekeler launched Gridiron Gaming Group “to help pro athletes and public figures make deeper connections with their fans, expand their audience, and monetize their communities through live streaming.” Members include Chargers teammates receiver Mike Williams and defensive lineman Justin Jones, among a handful of other athletes.

It wasn’t too long ago that Ekeler was significantly less busy. Two years ago, Ekeler told ESPN that he envisioned himself one day owning a lake house in Nebraska once his playing career was over. Since then, he’s become a big fish in a big pond. He’s signed a new contract and begun unlocking opportunities that weren’t present before. His current workload isn’t conducive to living such a low-key lifestyle. He leans back in his seat and again quietly contemplates for a few seconds when asked whether he still desires to eventually live on a lake.

“I do want to do that, absolutely,” he says. “I want that to be part of my life. I do want a family, and I know if I’m going like this, I will have zero time for a family.”

Suzanne still can’t believe that her son—“a kid that never speaks”—has transformed into the business-savvy, always-on-the-move multimillionaire who holds “a gazillion interviews a week.” She understands that Ekeler’s reimagined priorities have generated too much momentum for him to slow down now and buy his lake house, though. “Well, maybe down the road, maybe when you’re old!” she told him.

“There are no walls on his world right now,” Suzanne says. “It literally is whatever he’s gonna make it, and he’s gonna make it a damn good one.”

Most would learn of Ekeler’s story, how far he’s come, and perhaps think “mission accomplished.” But, as unlikely as his journey is, he doesn’t reflect much on it.

“I’m just not done. I’m not done, man,” he says, his eyes widening. “To reflect, absolutely, I definitely appreciate how far I’ve come, but it’s like, football’s great, but I think I’m going beyond football. I’m trying to change the world.”

Veteran pass rusher Von Miller recently spoke with Buccaneers cornerback Richard Sherman about mental reinforcement playing an integral role for an athlete’s sustained physical success. It makes sense why Ekeler is so adamant that musing about his accomplishments isn’t beneficial. “I know where I’ve been,” he continues. “I know where I came from and the steps I’ve taken in order to get here and it’s definitely helped me learn and continue to form my future. But it’s just that. It’s not necessarily a reflection yet.”

There’s still plenty more that Ekeler believes he’s capable of offering the world. He recently shared that he spent part of the Chargers’ bye week in Watts, a neighborhood in South Los Angeles, working on a project he says is intended to “implement resources that people can use for the long run” and to provide “a fair level of opportunity.” He hasn’t gone fully public with the project yet. Suzanne has heard him talk excitedly about his ideas over the phone, leaving her in awe at the numerous ways her son is trying to effect change.

“I have goose bumps right now,” Suzanne says. “Like, I don’t know where he’s going. But the world is his ocean and he can take it.”

The Ryen Russillo Podcast

Chris Long on Brian Kelly and the Super Bowl Favorite. Plus, Matt Leinart on Lincoln Riley to USC

The Ringer Gambling Show

Should We Continue to Bet Against Teams Coming Off Byes? Plus: Why Unders Are an Attractive Position This Week.

Slow News Day

Should the Seahawks Blow It Up? With Mina Kimes

View all stories in NFL