Carl Ekern has long been one of pro football’s great mysteries, a linebacker who, for no apparent reasons, has survived 12 years in the National Football League.
Body? Well, let’s just say that Ekern has never swapped water bottles with Ben Johnson. Some, in fact, have suggested that Ekern invest in anabolic steroids to beef up a 228-pound body that seems ill-suited for the pounding taken at inside linebacker.
“People have advised me to,” Ekern said of the steroid question. “But I don’t think at this point I’m going to.”
At this point, there’s little use. Ekern’s 34-year-old body, the factory model, has somehow carried him safely through football’s wars. Many don’t understand how.
“I’m small but I’m slow, so it kind of balances out,” Ekern said.
Speed? Ekern has already answered that.
Strength? Not unless you count lifting film canisters.
So how is it that Ekern has managed to fight off the charge of youth and keep his job after all these years? How is it that he can be leading the Rams in tackles with 27 after 5 games?
Fritz Shurmur, Ram defensive coordinator, asks the same questions.
“He’s not big, fast, strong and he’s not a great athlete,” Shurmur said. “He’s just a gifted football player.”
And the smartest player he has ever known, Shurmur said.
And where would Ekern be if he wasn’t intelligent?
“Hunting,” Shurmur said.
Ekern makes up for physical liabilities by succeeding in the classroom. He’s methodical in his approach to the game, disciplined to the point of superstition.
Ekern has taken the game indoors to the film room and the chalkboards.
The team’s captain and defensive signal caller, Ekern figures he can plug a hole much more quickly if he sees it enough times on the big screen.
“He has an unbelievable understanding of the game, brought on by curiosity,” Shurmur said. “So many guys look at film and don’t know what they’re seeing. It’s like they’re watching like a fan. Carl knows what to look for, how a back’s lined up so he can cheat in his alignment. In most cases, he makes more plays than the great athlete who doesn’t know the play.”
Ekern’s routine never changes. Every day after practice, for example, he goes off by himself and hits the blocking sled for 5 minutes, tops. It’s nothing much, just a few pops with his forearms.
“I’ve been doing it as long as I can remember,” he said. “I got in the habit a long time ago. If I stop, I’d say, ‘Geez, did I do everything I could to be ready that week?’ ”
Ekern’s approach to the game was influenced greatly by his mentor and fellow overachiever, Jack Reynolds, a Ram linebacker from 1970 to 1980.
“It’s kind of what I got from Hacksaw,” Ekern said. “Every week, get ready the same way. He got ready the same way and he played steadily because of that over his career. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
For Ekern, it starts with viewing every frame of football film he can get his hands on. He studies scouting reports and opponents’ tendencies.
The night before every game, Ekern writes summary reports about his opponent. “Just certain things I want to remember,” he says.
He always arrives at the stadium 2 hours before kickoff. Ekern surveys the field once, by himself, and then gets his ankles taped. Sticking to a precise time schedule, he returns to his locker and reviews his notes. He puts his socks on first--always--then his pants. Then he gets his shoes taped. Afterward, he tapes his hands and returns to the field for warmups.
“I used to be really bad,” Ekern said. “I used to have the same guy pull my jersey on.”
Ekern also used to meet briefly with safety Nolan Cromwell before stepping on the field.
“Now, Nolan’s gone,” Ekern said of Cromwell, who’s retired.
End of ritual. Ekern doesn’t consider his routine strange.
“Most people find comfort and security in routine,” he said. “It just helps build your confidence.”
Ekern is approaching another hurdle. Linebacker Jim Collins, out all season with a knee injury, is eligible to come off the injured reserve list next week.
Ekern isn’t sure how Collins’ return will affect him.
“I’d be lying if I said I haven’t thought about it,” he said. “But how much you let it affect you is another thing. I knew the final decision about how things went were going to be determined on how I did. I knew that. It was obvious to me in training camp.”
So far, Ekern has held up well. And when the end comes, Shurmur thinks he’ll make a great coach. Some would say Ekern already looks like one.
“I don’t know how you could select a better captain or role model,” Shurmur said. “I tell (rookie linebacker Fred) Strickland, ‘If you want to be a great player, the best thing you can do is follow him around all day.’ ”
Defensive tackle Gary Jeter, ruled doubtful for Sunday’s game on Wednesday because of a ankle and knee injuries, was upgraded to probable after Thursday’s practice. Vince Newsome, probable on Wednesday with a neck injury, is now doubtful. Safety Johnnie Johnson and tailback Gaston Green missed Thursday’s practice with the flu. . . . The Rams won’t decide until today whether to activate tailback Charles White for Sunday’s game against Atlanta. The team has a 1-week roster exemption for White, who returned this week from a 30-day suspension. . . . Dale Hatcher is still at least a week away from returning as the team’s punter.