Former Western running back Austin Ekeler overcomes odds, defies doubters to play in NFL
Former Western running back Austin Ekeler overcomes odds, defies doubters to play in NFL
Take, for instance, his first game in the backfield against West Texas A&M in the 2013 season opener. Ekeler started as a true freshman for Western before the home crowd at the Mountaineer Bowl in Gunnison. It was an inauspicious start.
“My first college game ever, as a freshman,” Ekeler said, “I had 10 carries for 10 yards.”
It’s pretty easy to do the math there on yards per carry.
“I thought, ‘What am I doing?’” Ekeler said. “’I am terrible. I’m not ready. Why did I pull my redshirt? Ten carries? For 10 yards?’”
The next game, however, on the road against Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) opponent Idaho State, Ekeler carried the ball 20 times for 105 yards with a long run of 27 yards—good for 5.3 yards per carry. His self-confidence quickly relocated from the outhouse to the penthouse.
“I went on a streak for eight games of 100 yards or more,” Ekeler said. “I thought, ‘OK, I can do this.’ I was getting used to the speed of the game. It’s not like high school; that’s for sure. I ended the season with over 1,000 yards and was Freshman of the Year. And so then I thought, ‘OK, maybe I can play this game.’ I started to gain some confidence.”
Ekeler was a unanimous choice for Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference (RMAC) Offensive Freshman of the Year, ranking third in the RMAC with 1,049 rushing yards despite missing two games. Despite his impressive statistics, Western finished the season with a 2-7 record.
At the end of that season, as is his custom, Western head coach Jas Bains asked his players to write down a list of goals. These lists culminate with an “ultimate goal” at the bottom of the page. Ekeler was having trouble finding the words to describe his particular ultimate goal. So instead he chose an image: the National Football League logo.
For a 5-foot-8, 185-pound Division II running back, the NFL shield might have seemed like a stretch to some. By then, however, Bains had seen enough from Ekeler to know better.
“He jumped right in,” Bains said. “He was fast. Physically, he was already at the level of our kids. And he just got better throughout his career.
“He is one of the hardest-working kids I’ve ever seen. Doesn’t matter what it is. He’s competitive—everything. You’re doing sprints; he wants to win every sprint. You’re in the weight room; he wants to lift more than everybody. He wants to jump higher than everyone. He doesn’t want anyone beating him. He came in with that attitude.”
Fast forward four years. Taking his very first NFL handoff from none other than venerable Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, Ekeler scoots 35 yards to the end zone for a touchdown.
How does an undersized, underweight, undrafted football player—overlooked by every college other than Western as a capable running back—go from the Western Slope of Colorado to the bright lights and big hits of the NFL? In a nutshell: an insistence on working hard and dreaming big.
BIG NUMBERS, FEW SUITORS IN EATON
Born in Lincoln, Neb., Ekeler grew up in Eaton, approximately 70 miles northeast of Denver, as something less than a football prodigy. It was not until his sophomore season at Eaton High School that Ekeler first played varsity football.
“I didn’t actually start,” Ekeler said. “I was kind of like a special-package guy because I was still pretty small, and they didn’t want to get me hurt.”
Ekeler stopped splitting carries in the backfield his senior season, when he started to see significant improvement.
“My senior year, I was the only back in the backfield and ran for, I think, 2,300 yards and had 43 touchdowns,” Ekeler said. “I was scoring, like, five or six touchdowns a game. That’s when I really started to think, ‘Wow, I might be able to go do this in college.’”
Not many in college coaching agreed. Despite Ekeler’s electrifying statistics and a proven ability on film to avoid tacklers, no college scouts approached him about playing running back in college. Except one.
“You watch his film from high school, all he does is make people miss,” Bains said. “That’s what you saw in his college career. He made guys miss. He was unbelievable in high school. I think he scored 40-something touchdowns when he was a senior. And that’s what the film was. So if he was anything close to that, we felt like we had a pretty good player.
“He wanted to be a running back. That was the story. We liked him as a tailback. I’m sure he could have played on defense. We liked what he did with the ball in his hands. So we just recruited him early and stayed on him.”
Other RMAC schools recruited Ekeler, but not to play running back. And only one Division I school, albeit FCS, approached Ekeler.
“Only one big school offered me: The University of Northern Colorado showed some interest, but they wanted me to maybe come in and try out for corner[back],” Ekeler said. “I wasn’t trying to play corner at all. A couple other Division II schools in the RMAC came and offered me—and same thing. ‘Come in as an athlete,’ they said. Or, ‘We’ll see how you fit in on our team.’
“Western came to me and said, ‘Hey, we want you to play running back.’ That’s how I ended up deciding that, ‘Hey, I’m going to Western.’ They had just graduated their senior running back, so the spot wasn’t locked in by any means. That’s how I ended up at Western.”
And he couldn’t wait to get there.
RUNNING WILD, DEEP IN THE HEART OF THE ROCKIES
“I left [for Gunnison] the day I graduated,” Ekeler said. “There were some things going on at home that I was trying to get away from. It was an opportunity for me to get away from that and start my new chapter in life. It ended up working out. I had a couple of former teammates from high school who were at Western, so I stayed with them. Got a job. Started working out with the team. I think that’s how I came into that starting role because I started to form relationships with the guys there.”
A starter and team captain for all four years from 2013-16, Ekeler went on to become Western’s most decorated running back ever. He owns Western’s career records in rushing yards, rushing attempts, rushing touchdowns and scoring. Ekeler finished his junior season as the nation’s leader in scoring and all-purpose yards in Division II. In his senior season, he led the nation in Division II rushing yards per game.
And to cap off his sensational football career at Western, Ekeler was named a finalist for the 2016 Harlon Hill Trophy—essentially the Heisman Trophy for Division II. It was the first time in Western’s long football history that a player was selected as a finalist for the award. In yet another example of being underestimated and overlooked, Ekeler finished eighth in Harlon Hill voting.
In fact, Ekeler was not even the top vote-getter among running backs in Harlon Hill voting. Grand Valley State sophomore running back Marty Carter took fifth. Despite another slight, Ekeler continued to dream of playing in the NFL.
PREPARING FOR NFL DRAFT: NO WHAT-IFS
Decision time: finish his senior year and work out in Gunnison or withdraw from Western to devote all his time, energy and passion to the “ultimate goal.”
Encouraged by the fact that nearly every one of the 32 NFL teams sent a scout to visit him at Western during his senior season, Ekeler chose to “stop out” of Western and focus on preparing for a Pro Day—a sort of regional, mock NFL combine—and the NFL Draft.
“I had a couple talks with Coach Bains and my agent and ended up making the decision to do a Pro Day preparation with Loren Landow down in Denver. I had no idea how to prepare for Pro Day. I knew I had to be in shape and do all the measureables, but that’s all I knew. I didn’t know how. So I wanted to go to a professional.
“I was serious about what I wanted to do. Why not go all-in on it? I had a real shot at making the NFL. I didn’t ever want to look back and ask: ‘Dang, what if? What if? What if?’ So I said to myself, ‘I’m leaving school and putting everything I can into the NFL. Food. Preparation. Pro Day. Everything.’ So I went to train with Loren Landow. [Eventual No. 8 overall draft selection] Christian McCaffrey was there. It was a great group. I think there were 20 of us. I think five or six of us are still on NFL teams now. So it was a pretty good Pro Day group.”
During the Pro Day scouting event at the University of Colorado Boulder in March 2017, Ekeler did not disappoint. His 40-yard dash in 4.43 seconds would have ranked fourth at the NFL combine, had he been invited. No running back at the combine had a better vertical jump.
Bains saw it all.
“I went down there for Pro Day,” Bains said. “I kept telling the scouts, ‘If you want to look at numbers, he’s going to be one of the best guys in general. If you’re looking at 40 times and what he can bench press and how high he can jump, he’ll probably be one of the best kids in the draft.’”
With an unlikely, impressive Pro Day effort under his belt, Ekeler turned his focus to the 2017 NFL Draft.
“The draft was so stressful,” Ekeler said. “Oh, my goodness. I was expecting to be drafted—maybe sixth or seventh round—because I destroyed my Pro Day, really good numbers, led the nation in this and that. And I think I’m going to be drafted by the Chargers.
“It comes down to the last day. Then it comes down to the seventh round—only 32 picks left. It gets about halfway through the seventh round, and the Chargers don’t pick me up. Then I get a call from my agent, who says, ‘Hey, the Chargers didn’t draft you obviously. But they’ve said that if you don’t get drafted, they’ll offer you this amount and pick you up as an undrafted free agent.’ We had already talked about high-priority teams and low-priority teams, and the Chargers were at the top of the list. Right as the draft ended, I got a call from one of the recruiters telling me, ‘Congrats. See you soon.’ Right when the draft ended, I became a Charger.”
ACHIEVING THE ‘ULTIMATE GOAL’
After hard work in the backfield and on special teams in minicamps, training camp and preseason games, the undrafted rookie running back out of Western made the final 53-man roster as the Chargers’ No. 3 running back entering the 2017 NFL season. Among the running backs he beat out? Kenjon Barner and Andre Williams, both products of major college football programs (University of Oregon and Boston College, respectively).
The roster spot was yet another example of Ekeler defying doubters via hard work, determination and an unshakeable belief in himself.
“It was kind of a progression through camp, where he started to stand out,” Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt said about Ekeler. “If you said to a player—especially a player who was undrafted, who came in here as a free agent— ‘Look, this is how you make the team.’ Then how he progressed is what you do.
“He made plays all throughout camp. As he got more opportunities, he got better. … When he’s gotten his opportunities, he’s made the most of them. It’s a credit to him and the way he’s worked. You’re excited for the young man. He’s a shining example to show to young guys. This is how you have to work.”
In his first NFL season, the Chargers’ Ekeler had 47 rushes for 260 yards (5.5 yards per carry) with two touchdowns. He also had 27 receptions for 279 yards (10.3 yards per catch) with three touchdowns, including a score Oct. 22 against his hometown Denver Broncos, who incidentally were among the few NFL teams not to scout Ekeler during his senior season at Western.
“We’re even right now,” Ekeler joked.
While his football future seems as bright as the perpetual sunshine that bathes the Gunnison Valley, Ekeler is focused on the short term.
“My rookie year, my mind is focused on continuing to do well, continuing to get through this year,” Ekeler said. “The most adjustment takes place during your rookie year. Even in college, looking back to my freshman year at Western, the adjustments, feeling out where my spot was, figuring out my leadership role, my strengths. I’ll keep making adjustments during this season. During the offseason, then I can fine-tune the things I need to fine-tune. Right now, it’s just: Get through the season and do as much as I can to help the team. During the offseason, then I can start thinking about the future.”
The offseason came to Ekeler earlier than he would have liked. The Chargers narrowly missed qualifying for the NFL postseason after starting the season 0-4. Missing the playoffs, however, made returning to the classroom at Western for the Spring 2018 semester a little easier. Ekeler needs to complete just 12 credits before earning a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration.
“I am a Business major with an emphasis in Energy Management,” Ekeler said. “Kind of a unique emphasis on campus in the business world. I think there were only seven or eight universities at the time when I joined the program that offered that.”
Before Ekeler returned to Western for his final semester of coursework, the three-time Academic All-American was asked to reflect on his time as a Western student.
“It’s easy for student-athletes to fall from the importance of their grades,” Ekeler said. “So much of our days is caught up in practice, for instance. [Western Director of Energy Management] Menon Billingsley, behind the scenes, played a huge part in my academic success.
“And the class sizes are small, too. I pretty much knew everybody in the Borick Business Building. It was rare that I walked into the Business Building and saw an unfamiliar face. Class didn’t even feel like class. It felt more like ‘group learning’—let’s discuss things. Classes were small. Teachers knew my name. They knew I was a football player. They knew who I was in the classroom, too.”
Back in Gunnison, in his office overlooking America’s highest collegiate indoor track (elevation 7,717 feet) during his seventh season as Western’s head coach, Bains confirmed that there’s more than one dimension to the small back from a small school with oversized dreams.
“He’s probably one of the most decorated—if not the most decorated—football players here ever, as far as Western history goes,” Bains said. “Arguably, statistics prove it as well; he’s the best running back ever to play here. He holds almost every record as a tailback.
“The beautiful thing about Austin is he’s garnered just as many academic honors. He’s smart. He was a student-athlete. He did a nice job. Humble.”
Story by Bryan Boyle, Marketing Communications. Photo by Greg Ronlov, Los Angeles Chargers. Story updated Feb. 6, 2018.